Israel’s Relations with the Syrian Rebels: An Assessment :: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
With this overview of the dynamics in these border areas, it remains to be asked what exactly are the Israeli goals and interests here. Much of the recent analysis has used the terminology of a “buffer zone” in relation to Israel’s border policies, meaning that the goal is to create an area of allied or “friendly” forces that will keep elements considered active threats to Israel away from the borders. In this regard, the main threats are thought to be Iran and allied militias such as Lebanon’s Hizballah, the concern being that were the regime to regain full control over Quneitra governorate, Iran and its allies would have free access to this territory to build a Golan “resistance” front against Israel, which would at minimum entail the threat of small-scale attacks to harangue Israeli forces in the Golan and “test the waters,” so to speak, and at worst a full-scale invasion of Israeli territory.
It may in fact not be necessary for Iran to station its own personnel or members of foreign client forces in Quneitra in the future: It could well realize aspirations to build a “resistance” front in the area by “native proxy” through the multiple Syrian Hizballah groups that have arisen in the course of the civil war. Broadly speaking, Syrian Hizballah groups can be divided into two types: larger movements like Liwa al-Baqir, which claims 4,000 fighters and has developed considerable networks within Aleppo province, and small-scale “special operation” groups that deploy to a number of different fronts depending on military needs and a sense of crisis. Some of these small Syrian Hizballah outfits have deployed to the Quneitra front, though there is no evidence that they have done so to prepare for an imminent attack on Israel. In a future scenario of the development of a broader “resistance” along the Golan, these smaller groups may well be a key actor to threaten Israel.
A related source of concern has centered on the Druze village of Hadr, in that Samir al-Quntar–a Hizballah commander of Druze origin–and Farhan al-Sha’alan–an NDF commander originally from the Druze village of Ein Qiniyya in the Golan Heights–were trying to build a “resistance” movement in Hadr in order to target Israel. Both men were killed in a suspected Israeli airstrike in December 2015. No hints have emerged since of the revival of such a project.
Yet the case of Hadr actually shows that the “buffer zone” narrative, while seemingly convincing in its simplicity, does not fully account for Israel’s approach towards these border areas. On the general level, it is certainly true that in a choice between regime and rebel control over towns like Jubatha al-Khashab, the preference is that rebel forces should control them. With Hadr, however, Israel’s concern is that the village should not fall into rebel hands, despite concerns about Hizballah using it as a base for recruitment of personnel to target Israel. This position has arisen in deference to the sentiments of the Druze community in Israel and the Golan Heights, who understandably fear the fate of their co-religionists should the village ever fall to the rebels. Muru Hawran demonstrated an awareness of this lack of Israeli willingness to see Hadr fall, elaborating, “All that is happening is an international game at the expense of Syrian blood: settling of accounts.” In a similar vein, he was clear that he still considered Israel to be an enemy state, but justified Fursan al-Jawlan’s acceptance of aid through Israel on the grounds that it is better to do so than to “destroy oneself.”
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