Originally published under the title “Israel’s Virtual Security Zone.”
Cautious and prudent Israeli policy has largely succeeded over the last five years in sealing off the Syrian civil war from Israel’s territory. This has been achieved through the careful cultivation of a working relationship with rebel militias on the other side of the border, along with a readiness to act decisively on occasion to neutralize emergent dangers.
The success of such a policy is by definition fragile, as is the calm it produces. A single mishap could transform the situation. In recent weeks, there has been a notable uptick in the volume of incidents on the border, though a general deterioration still seems distant.
Reserve soldiers serving along the borderline describe a reality in which both regime and rebels are engaged in constantly testing the alertness of Israeli forces, looking to take advantage of any momentary lapse of attention.
Israel responds to all incidences of fire into Israeli territory, including when these appear to be inadvertent rather than deliberate. The intention is to keep the war away from the border.
One of the unplanned results of this policy is the emergence of small tent emplacements close to the line of division. Refugees have made their way to the border area, assuming that the Syrian government army will tend to avoid it.
July was a busy month. On July 4th, the technical fence was damaged by Syrian army fire. Israel responded by striking at two regime targets.
Then on the 18th, a drone was dispatched across the border to Israel. Israeli attempts to down it were unsuccessful.
A week later, Israel responded to stray Syrian mortar rounds which came across the border. An Israeli drone destroyed the mortar emplacement.
July witnessed an unexpected visit to the Quneitra area by General Mohamed Reza Naqdi, commander of the Basij paramilitary forces in Iran.
There were also reports of Israeli bulldozers operating in the Demilitarized Zone east of the technical fence, in the area between Ein Zivan and Quneitra. This reporter witnessed evidence of this work, on a recent trip to the Golan.
Thus far with regard to the Assad regime and its allies. But of course the regime only controls a few points along the border. Most of it is held by rebel forces, described as a mix of Jabhat al Nusra and other free army groups by IDF soldiers stationed at one of the border posts.
The IDF is in communication with representatives of these forces, though relations are less than ideal. The southern part of the border, however, is the area of greatest concern. This is held by the Khaled Ibn al-Walid Brigade, a franchise of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Shuhada al-Yarmouk Brigades. The Israeli assumption is that at a certain point this organization will almost certainly turn its guns against Israel. In the meantime, the two sides watch each other closely.
The entry of rebel and civilian wounded via the border fence is a regular occurrence, as is the transfer of humanitarian aid. The UN is the body which facilitates this process.
It all seems to be working smoothly.
The sound of gunfire punctuates the days and the nights on the Golan. Sometimes it is the distant, ominous boom of heavy artillery, perhaps from the area south of Damascus. The Syrian capital is only 70 km away. At other times the rattle of small arms fire can be heard. This is closer, perhaps evidence of a skirmish between the rebels and the jihadis of the Khalid Ibn al-Walid. But on the Israeli side of the border the wine is good, the restaurants are open, the summer days seemingly endless.
So how will all this end? Will the division of Syria hold, making the militia arrangements across the border and the relationships created permanent? Perhaps. But in judging the likely future direction of events, it is necessary to widen the lens, and observe events further north.
One of the key battles of the Syrian civil war is currently under way in Aleppo province, far to the north. The regime sealed rebel controlled eastern Aleppo in early August. The rebels now appear to have broken the siege. But the outcome is not yet decided.
If the regime succeeds in taking Aleppo city back in its entirety, this will mark a decisive setback for the rebellion. It will open the way for a regime campaign to retake the rural north. If this too succeeds, it will then be the turn of the southern border area. Such a turn of events is not inevitable, and may not transpire. But if it does, it will mean that the tense but stable arrangements that Israel has built up over the previous half decade will come to an end. It is possible that the preparations on the border fence are in anticipation of this eventuality. Should it come, the virtual security zone established by Israel across the borderline will prove to have been just one of the transient, if among the most fascinating, episodes of the Syrian civil war.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.