Israeli Intelligence on Alert with a Civil War Next Door: Again, “The Syrians are On the Fences!”

by YOSSI MELMAN

(Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, wrote this article first for the website of the Israel-based television news channel, i24news.tv)

During the surprising and successful Syrian attack (simultaneously coordinated with Egypt) aimed at recapturing the Golan Heights from Israel on October 6, 1973, one could hear on military radios the panicking voices of Israeli military commanders from their bunkers and posts: “The Syrians are on the fences!”

Forty years after the Yom Kippur War, the Syrians are once again dangerously close to Israel’s fences, though this time it is a different kind of Syrian, with a different network of support.

When the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted in his “I can never be wrong” attitude that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be finished off by the rebels “within three weeks.”

Bashar al-Assad, Still Hanging On (courtesy: Iran's Press TV)

Bashar al-Assad, Still Hanging On (courtesy: Iran’s Press TV)

Three years later, Assad is still holding onto power and has recently even strengthened his positions in various parts of the country. Israel’s current Defense Minister Moshe (“Boogie”) Ya’alon believes that the Syrian president is in control of only 40 percent of the country’s territory.

What concerns Israel, however, is that the trend has reversed along the 100-kilometer (62-mile) strip of the Israeli-Syrian border, spreading from Mount Hermon in northern Golan to the El Hama enclave in the southern part of the Golan near the border with Jordan.

In this area, close to Israeli military positions and not far from Golan-Heights Jewish settlements, the Syrian army has lost important positions to the rebels. Some of the opposition fighters belong to the extreme Islamist movement of Jabhat al-Nusra. This group is a mixed bag of Syrian and foreign fighters who infiltrated that country from neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to join the “holy” battle.

Two important developments mark the consolidation of al-Nusra’s jihadist combatants. The first was the seizure of Tel (“Hill”) al-Ahmar, only a couple of hundred meters (yards) from the Israeli border.

The hill and its 200 Syrian army defenders were besieged for months. The Syrian Air Force parachuted supplies of food, medicine and ammunition, and the planes bombed the surrounding rebels. At a certain stage, a Syrian army brigade tried to break through and shatter the siege, but was it ambushed and failed in its mission.

After the conquest, the Islamists took a group photo atop the hill, waving banners praising Osama bin Laden. Even more significant and worrisome from the Israeli perspective was the fact that the rebels got their hands on sophisticated weapons, such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, which they captured from Syria’s army. These were the kind of missiles which Israeli officials describe as “game changers.”

When those kinds of missiles were being transported from place to place by Syria’s army, the Israeli Air Force — though without ever acknowledging this — bombed the convoys.  There were reportedly at least six bombing raids, aimed at preventing the weapons from reaching Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

The missiles, including potentially potent anti-aircraft systems, may not have reached the Shi’ite Lebanese of Hezbollah, but they are now in the hands of other radicals: the disciples of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

They too are dangerous enemies of Israel.

In an even more far-reaching development, al-Nusra fighters took over another strategic post near the Israeli border a few days ago: Tel al-Jabia in the southern part of the region.

The triumphant announcement by al-Nusra including a significant nugget of information on secret intelligence-gathering.  The statement declared that the Syrian army had been operating a secret intelligence base inside the hill, manned and controlled by Iranian officers.  They had been directing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s electronic bugging equipment in the direction of Israel.

This announcement appears to confirm what analysts had speculated for years: that Iranian intelligence officers hold positions on the Syrian side of the frontier with Israel.  That underlines just how the Syrian-Iranian strategic alliance is directed against Israel.

The rebels scored another major achievement in their successful takeover of the headquarters of Brigade 61 of the Syrian army, which is tasked with controlling the entire border area. The brigade commanders were forced to retreat to Damascus during the takeover and are now leading the war in the Syrian Golan from “behind,” rather than on the front lines with their soldiers.

Israeli officials estimate that nearly 60 to 70 percent of the area is under rebel control, including the surroundings of the regional capital Quneitra (which also serves as the official crossing point between Syria and Israel for U.N. observers and a few local residents).

It is not clear, however, what the division is between the anti-Israel Islamist forces such as al-Nusra and a few other small groups versus the secular units which belong to the Free Syria Army (FSA).  The FSA rebels are considered to be sympathetic to the West and voice little (if any) hostility toward Israel. Some FSA commanders and top leaders expressed in the past their hopes that Israel would help them with weapons and even training to fight the Assad regime.

Israel’s official policy is not to interfere in the civil war, but as Defense Minister Ya’alon has said on numerous occasions, Israel will act “to defend our vital interests.” These interests include preventing the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah and retaliating whenever shells or missiles are fired toward the Israeli side of the border — be they errant or deliberate by the Assad army or the rebels.

Regardless of its declared policy, Israel is quietly trying to shape what happens on the other side of the border. It does so by striving to maintain ties with elders and local leaders in villages along the border, encouraging them to block Islamist elements from entering their villages.

In return, Israel rewards these villagers by allowing wounded civilians and warriors of the secular groups to cross into Israel and be treated in a field hospital operated by IDF near the border. So far, more than 1,000 Syrians have been treated at this hospital.

For years before their injuries, these Syrians’ brains were washed with anti-Israel propaganda authored by the Assad regime. Now, when Syrians return home from Israel, it is hoped that they will be fairly friendly ambassadors for the Jewish State by praising the treatment they received from official enemies.

Israeli intelligence estimates see no sign that the war will end in the near future. According to this estimate, the two sides are deadlocked, and the war may prolong for many years to come. Another intelligence estimate surmises that Assad is trying to hide some residual chemical weapons, though there is no concrete evidence to verify this claim.

The United Nations announced recently that 92 percent of the regime’s chemical weapons have been removed from Syria and destroyed. As long as Assad and his regime remain in power, the Islamist militants will target him as their main priority. But Israeli military and intelligence planners do not rule out the possibility that the Islamists may one day turn their arms — including sophisticated weapons — against Israel.

May 1, 2014

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