The Golan Heights on the border between Israel and Syria is a favorite holiday destination for Israelis, and thousands were hiking and picnicking there during the recent holidays. But the Israeli army asked some visitors to leave after a group of 50 Syrians, some of them armed, approached the border with Israel in the area of Mount Hermon, which in the winter functions as Israel’s only ski resort.
Some of the fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Syrian rebels has moved closer to the Israeli border, and several mortar rounds have landed inside Israeli territory. Israeli officials believe these mortars were not aimed at Israel.
“The army’s intelligence forecasts according to which the [Syrian side of the] Golan Heights would become a loosely governed area are proving true,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Intelligence Chief Aviv Kochavi said during a tour of the Syrian border. “The weakening of the Syrian regime’s grip [on the border region] and the increasing infiltration of global jihad elements pose a new threat, which the army is preparing for.”
Israeli officials say the border between Israel and Syria has been one of the quietest since the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But as the fighting in Syria continues, there is fear that it could spread over the border into Israel. Syria has always demanded the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967. Israel has always said it will discuss the future of the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria. Perhaps as a warning to Syria, Israeli troops held a “surprise” training exercise with thousands of reservists near the border last month.
“I was on the Golan Heights this week, and we heard shots and yelling,” former National Security Adviser Uzi Dayan said. “We should move more troops to the border and maintain the security fence. We need to be prepared for all possibilities, including a terror attack from Syria.”
The fence between Israel and Syria was built after the 1973 war. In June 2011, at least 14 pro-Palestinian protesters were killed trying to cross into Israel from Syria during an anti-Israel demonstration.
Israel is closely watching events in Syria, where 19 months of bitter fighting has yet to bring a decisive victory for either Assad or the rebels.
“Assad’s control is failing,” Dayan said. “It doesn’t mean he will fall immediately, but in the long run he won’t be in power. It is possible that someone will assassinate him, or an entire division with its commanders will go to the other side and it will be over.”
Israel is worried about what happens after Assad. The most likely possibilities are either that Syria will become a Sunni state, as the majority of the population is Sunni, or will fragment into several small mini-states. Assad is a member of the Alawite minority, a branch of Shia Islam.
The Druze community in the Golan Heights is watching the situation especially closely. Although they live under Israeli sovereignty, many of the Druze in the Golan Heights consider themselves to be Syrians. Only about 10 percent of the 22,000 there have accepted Israeli citizenship.
At the beginning of the fighting in Syria, most of the Druze in the Golan supported Assad.
“Assad has been very supportive of the Druze in the Golan,” Gid’on Abbas, a Druze former general in the Israeli army said. “But many Druze have gotten killed in the fighting in Syria, and there are a lot of mixed feelings. There have even been brawls in some villages between those who support Assad and those who oppose him.”
Abbas shared Dayan’s belief that the end of the Assad government is only a matter of time.
“He will not be able to continue indefinitely,” he said. “In the past few weeks, the different rebel groups have tried to band together and present an alternative to the regime.”
The fall of Assad presents both dangers and opportunities for Israel, say these analysts. Chaos is always dangerous, and cross-border terror attacks could spark a harsh Israeli response. Israel is also concerned that Syria could provide Hezbollah terrorists in south Lebanon with chemical weapons that could eventually be used against Israel.
Yet, at the same time, the current conflict could have benefits for Israel.
“From Israel’s point of view, it’s not a bad thing if the fighting in Syria lasts forever,” said Dayan. “Syria is becoming weakened economically, politically and socially, and it will never return to what it was. Hezbollah will also no longer have a godfather and help from Syria, which will weaken them as well.”
Abbas, the Druze leader, believes that if Assad falls, more Druze in the Golan Heights will ask for, and receive, Israeli citizenship.
“They will want to be more cemented to Israel than to Syria,” he said. “The residents of the Golan see and hear what’s happening on the other side. They see so many civilians getting killed and there is a feeling that there is no control. Nobody even knows who’s against whom anymore.”