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  • 26 January 2014, 11:05

Syria Conflict Sees Israel Tighten Security

As the world watches the Syria talks in Geneva, Israel is keeping its eyes on the ground.

From the vantage point of the Golan Heights, taken from Syria and occupied in 1967, the state is able to keep a close watch on the civil war unfolding a few miles away.

For nearly 40 years the border with Syria was Israel's quietest.

Now the mountains bristle with surveillance technology, and in the last few months, manpower and military hardware have been increased significantly.

Regular troops have been replaced by elite units, such as the Paratroopers and the Golani Brigade.

A high-tech barrier, loaded with motion detectors and radar, has now been constructed along the "alpha line" of the UN demilitarised zone.

Profound changes in an area which, despite rising tensions, has yet to be the source of any significant attack on Israeli civilian or military positions.

But sporadic, small-scale attacks have occurred.

The fighting in south-western Syria has not been as intense as in northern provinces, such as Idlib and Aleppo, but it has been steady.

Since summer 2012, it's believed around 75% of the Syrian towns and villages near the Israeli border have fallen to disparate rebel groups.

Some small arms fire and artillery have landed in Israeli-controlled territory as a result of unintentional spill over, but on at least seven occasions in the last year and a half the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) have responded to intentional cross-border fire, sometimes using heavy weaponry such as anti-tank missiles.

So far, none of these incidents has escalated significantly, but Israel is determined to ensure the Syria regime knows it will be held responsible if that were to happen.

In December, an IDF vehicle was the target of an IED (improvised explosive device) attack along the border fence, near an area still controlled by President Bashar al Assad's troops.

And in the south near where the Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian borders meet, it is understood that an attempt to kidnap Israeli soldiers was recently thwarted.

Such incidents will stoke fears that hardline jihadist groups could begin targeting Israeli civilians if their control of the area is consolidated.

The Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is home to around 42,000 civilians - approximately 20,000 are Druze, the other 22,000 are Jews living primarily in the southern area.

In particular, analysts are concerned that the area of the Yarmouk river, which hugs the border with Jordan, could become a target for attacks on civilians due to its popularity as a tourist destination.

This all adds to the complexity of the already difficult question of what Israel wants to see happen in the Syria conflict.

On the face of it, the Israeli Government has been clear it is not taking sides, and wants no involvement in the fighting.

Transferring and treating Syrian civilians coming to the border with serious injuries is the extent of Israel's public engagement.

Unlike other neighbouring countries, its enemy-status has meant Israel has not been flooded with Syrian refugees trying to escape the devastation.

Yet behind closed doors, there is little unity of thought on what outcome would suit Israel best.

For now, regime control of the towns and villages in close proximity to the border is preferable to them coming under the yoke of radical jihadist groups - Israel knows the pressure points of the Assad regime, and how to press them.

But while Mr Assad remains in power with the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizbollah bolstering his position, Israel's biggest enemy, Iran, retains significance influence on its doorstep.

In the long term, that is not seen as a situation Israel will be able to tolerate.

For that reason, the likely response, in the short term at least, will be more of the same.

Further military build-up, a continuation of its heightened state of readiness, and an intense intelligence effort to thwart potential attacks on Israeli civilians.

It suits Israel to see Hizbollah fighters get killed in the fighting - at least 400 are thought to have died already, more than half the total number of fatalities suffered by the group in the last Lebanon war.

For now it also suits Israel to see Mr Assad retain control, but in a position of weakness that can be used against him.

But the reality is that Hizbollah's units are getting significantly more sophisticated warfare experience than they've ever had before.

Their presence in Syria may also assist the covert transfer of game-changing weaponry back to Lebanon - two factors that could be turned on Israel to deadly effect in future conflicts.

And while Mr Assad may offer "stability" along the border in the short term, accepting him means a tacit moral acceptance of his butchery, and Iran's guiding hand.

Even if the talks in Geneva brought an end to the fighting in Syria, bracing and preparing for the worst remains Israel's only option.

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