x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 February 2018

In Golan, a battle looms between Iran and Israel

The Golan Heights is becoming a flashpoint between Israel and Iran in Syria's bloody conflict.

Israeli troops on the Golan Heights during the 1973 war.
Israeli troops on the Golan Heights during the 1973 war.

More than four years into the Syrian conflict, the Golan Heights have become the centre of gravity for an indirect war between Iran and Israel. This was not an inevitable turn of events, as the area had been home to one of the quietest borders in the Middle East for decades. Although Israel seized the plateau in 1967 and unilaterally annexed it in 1981, the Golan had not witnessed clashes like South Lebanon or the Sinai Peninsula. This dramatically changed with the worsening of the war in Syria.

By the end of 2012, Iran and Hizbollah had sent hundreds of fighters to support the Bashar Al Assad regime. Fights with Syrian rebels, in particular Jabhat Al Nusra, increased on the Syrian side of the Golan and its vicinity. In April 2013, the Qusayr battle saw Hizbollah deploying a contingent of more than 1,200 men. In the following months, a war of attrition emerged in Quneitra and the Qalamoun mountains, with a new major battle flaring in Yabroud in February 2014.

But progressively it appeared that Hizbollah and the Iranians were not solely fighting Syrian rebels, but turning the Golan into a new forward base to target Israel. Various reports claim that tunnels and bunkers are being built to prepare for the next conflict with the Israeli military.

Soon the Israelis reacted by playing a rather ambiguous game with Syrian rebels on the other side of the border. Although it was common knowledge that medical care had been provided to Syrian civilians in Israeli hospitals, the United Nations Disengagement Observation Force based in the Golan were, by 2014, describing something bigger.

In its December 2014 report, the observation force “sporadically observed armed members of the opposition interacting with [the] Israeli Defence Force across the ceasefire line in the vicinity of United Nations positions”.

The rumours of a marriage of convenience between Israeli forces and rebels conveniently served the conspiratorial narrative of the Syrian regime, but it also upset the Druze in Israel, who expressed concern over the treatment of their community in Syria by groups like Jabhat Al Nusra. As a result, Brig Gen Moti Almoz, a spokesman for the Israeli military, denied any collaboration with Jabhat Al Nusra.

The second Israeli reaction to the Iran-Hizbollah strategy for the Golan was increased air strikes. There had been a steady growth in the frequency and intensity of Israeli raids in Syria in the last four years, culminating last January when a helicopter bombed a Hizbollah convoy in the governorate of Quneitra. Seven militiamen died, among them Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of one of the founders of Hizbollah. But soon, journalists discovered that an Iranian brigadier general, Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, died in the Israeli strike. Hizbollah retaliated 10 days later in the Chebaa farms by shooting one missile at an Israeli patrol, killing two soldiers and injuring seven others.

Although further escalation was prevented, clashes are far from over, as evidenced by the latest Israeli bombing of Syrian regime forces on the Golan earlier this month. In fact there are numerous reasons to believe the battle will continue.

With the Iranian enemy at its gate and the planned expansion of settlements in the Heights, Israeli military assertiveness is likely to increase. Israeli officials consider Iran in Syria a bigger threat than ISIL. There is also a feeling that the nuclear deal with world powers now emboldens Iran.

In addition, an Israeli company announced the discovery of significant volume of hydrocarbons at its drilling sites in the Golan Heights, raising the regional stakes a bit more.

On the Syrian side of the border, Hizbollah and the Iranians are holding ground against rebels. Additional resources are on their way from Iran.

In mid-October, Gen Qasem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, visited the Golan to reaffirm its strategic importance to Tehran before travelling to Beirut to visit the graves of Hizbollah’s fighters.

But the biggest unknown is the impact of the Russian air campaign. Russia and Iran are closely coordinating their military effort in defence of Mr Al Assad. Gen Soleimani travelled to Moscow in July to make the case for the intervention.

Russian planes have bombed the positions of Syrian rebel groups in Homs, but so far have not flown sorties in the Golan area. Obviously if a new clash between Israel and Iran occurs, this would put the Russians in a very delicate situation.

Against that backdrop, what could the UN do to prevent a new and perilous escalation?

Unfortunately not much, as the organisation faces dire difficulties in preserving its presence in the area. Already in 2013, following clashes between rebels and loyal forces in the area, Austria announced that it would withdraw its contributing forces to the disengagement observation force. The Austrian decision reflects a broader nervousness among the contributing nations.

As a result, given the number of forces involved, the stakes, and the absence of communication channels to establish rules of the game, the likelihood of escalation is high. In that sense, while the world eyes the fight against ISIL, an old-fashion conflict further south in the Golan looms and could well spark a regional war.

Jean-Loup Samaan is a researcher for the Nato Defence College in Italy