Israel-Syria Border Escalation

Jerusalem Post, 21/3


This week’s events on the Israel-Syrian border are testimony to the extent to  which the effective disintegration of the Syrian state is producing a new  security reality in the North.

Once, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s  regime sought to conduct its business via Israel’s border with Lebanon. The  Syrians would seek to place pressure on Israel by supporting paramilitary  proxies in Lebanon, which would launch attacks on Israeli forces and  communities.

At the same time, the direct Syria-Israel line would be kept  silent, out of fear of Israeli retribution. The precise reversal of this  situation now appears to be the reality.

On the assumption of Hezbollah  responsibility for the attacks, which at present appears the most likely  explanation, the movement is using the Syria-Israel border as a site for attacks  on Israeli forces.

For both political and military reasons, meanwhile, it  prefers to keep the Israel-Lebanon frontier quiet. Hezbollah played a  major part in the notable military successes enjoyed by the regime recently –  culminating in the capture of the town of Yabrud this week. Yet the Shi’ite  Islamist movement is not currently in great shape.

It has suffered a  major loss to its standing in Lebanon, because of its involvement in the  fighting in Syria. Its attempt to portray itself as a pan-Islamic,  anti-Israel force rather than a sectarian Shi’ite militia is now severely  tarnished. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of  Lebanese now view the organization unfavorably.

Sunni Lebanese are  growing increasingly unwilling to accept Hezbollah’s de facto domination of  Lebanon. In Tripoli and in Sidon, support among young Sunnis for the Syrian  rebels and for Salafi jihadi politics is rapidly increasing. And there  are around a million new Sunnis in Lebanon – refugees from the fighting in  Syria, whose attitudes toward Assad’s Hezbollah allies can be guessed  at.

The growth of Sunni Islamist violence in Lebanon means that Hezbollah  can no longer guarantee the safety of its own Shi’ite community. A string of  bomb attacks in the movement’s Dahiye quarter in south Beirut has led to a  depletion of the area population. Some Shi’ite Lebanese now prefer the  relative security of their south Lebanon villages close to the Israeli border to  remaining in Beirut.

For all these reasons, Hezbollah is evidently keen  to avoid using Lebanese soil as the launchpad for renewed strikes on  Israel. In addition, Hezbollah’s Iranian patrons are also likely to  oppose any provocation emanating from south Lebanon. Tehran has invested  enormously in replenishing and increasing Hezbollah’s missile capabilities (to  100,000 projectiles, we are told) since the 2006 war. This capability is there  to serve Iran’s strategic aims; it is not to be placed at risk for tactical  purposes.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah had a clear motive for striking at  Israel – in response to ongoing Israeli moves to interdict the movement’s  attempts to transport sophisticated weapons systems from Syria to  Lebanon. The February 24 raid on Janta in the eastern Bekaa was  particularly likely to generate a response from the movement, because it took  place a few kilometers onto Lebanese soil. This is the most likely  explanation for the recent string of attacks.

Hezbollah’s apparent  attempts at retribution, however, are cautious to the extreme.

They are  taking place from Syrian soil, not Lebanese. And they are not accompanied by a  claim of responsibility. Indeed, the roadside bomb placed in the Har Dov area on  March 14 was accompanied by a false claim of responsibility, which some media  outlets unwittingly broadcast.

This claim, supposedly from the Sunni  jihadi Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) group, did not emanate from  or appear on any of the sites or accounts officially associated with that  organization, according to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who tracks the activities of  ISIS and other jihadi groups.

ISIS, in any case, has no history of  activity in south Lebanon, no presence in southern Syria, and probably would not  have the ability to avoid both Hezbollah and IDF surveillance in order to  operate in Har Dov.

Israel’s response to the additional explosive device  placed on the border on March 18, which injured four IDF soldiers, was of a  scale and magnitude without precedent since the beginning of the civil war in  Syria.

For the first time, major facilities of the Syrian Arab Army were  targeted. These included, according to the IDF’s statement, “a training  facility, military headquarters and artillery batteries.”

Clearly,  Israeli defense planners have concluded that forces on the opposite side were  attempting to change the rules of engagement. Israel’s response – in a  manner familiar on the Lebanese border in the past and in Gaza more recently –  is intended to raise the price of increased aggression to a level sufficient to  cause the other side to desist from further provocations, without leading to a  general deterioration into armed conflict.

For many years prior to 2006,  Israel’s border with Lebanon was managed in such a fashion – first against the  PLO, then from the early ’90s, against Hezbollah. Periodic provocations would  result in “rounds” of violence, which would be followed by tense periods of  subsequent silence. It appears likely that the border between Israel and  Syria is now set to take on these characteristics, after a long period in which  only the conventional armies of Israel and Syria faced one another across the  border, and paramilitary activity was outside the rules of the game.

This  is testimony to how much the balance of power in relations between elements of  the Iran-led regional bloc has changed. Hezbollah has played a central role in  aiding Assad’s recovery. It is now evidently able to demand a return of the  favor.

Israel, meanwhile, is facing a complex new reality in the North.  While the claim of ISIS responsibility this time was almost certainly false,  there are al-Qaida type elements among the Syrian rebels and their Lebanese  supporters who seek to reach the border and commence action against the Jewish  state. Fighting against these elements are the Shi’ite jihadis of  Hezbollah, and various other components of Iran’s regional bloc. The task  facing Israel at present is to neutralize or deter both of these warring forces,  while at the same time avoiding if possible being drawn into a direct, unlimited  conflict with either.

It remains to be seen whether this week’s response will be  sufficient to bring the current “round” to a conclusion, or whether Hezbollah  and Assad’s army will seek a further exchange of fire. At present, the  former looks most likely.

But with the Syrian state in ruins, al-Qaida-  associated jihadis trying to reach the border, and the power balance between  Assad and Hezbollah severely shifted, a new reality in the North has been  born. The Israel-Syria border is now an active conflict zone once more.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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