The Golan Heights Border Security Challenge

As the Assad regime and its supporters are regaining control over substantial parts of Syria, the question of these forces dominating the cordon of villages close to the Israeli border is becoming a worrisome issue for Israel. Special column by Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel

Battles in the village of Jubata al-Khashab as seen from the Israeli Golan Heights (Archive photo: Ariel Schalit, AP)

The developments and processes taking place in the Syrian theater support numerous media columns, seminars, and publications. Most research institutions proudly publish their original analyses and commentary regarding the situation in Syria.

The reality in the Syrian theater has surpassed the imagination, and the abundance of players operating there has made it possible to address the issue from almost any angle.

It is not my intention to address the Syrian issue in general, but rather to present a practical question that we are likely to face in the near future. This question could re-introduce into the public and professional debate the issue of the "loyalty" of the State of Israel to elements which assist us.

At this point, I do not intend to draw similarities between different periods and different theaters, but rather to describe the way these processes may evolve within the short term (several months), as I see them, and based on these developments – outline the dilemma and the challenge we are facing.

Operation Good Neighbor of which the State of Israel generally, and the IDF in particular, are so proud (and justly so) has, in fact, put the Israeli ethos as far as humanitarian aid is concerned to a serious test.

The decisions made outlined the course to be taken: the State of Israel will extend assistance to the Syrian villages located close to the border in various fields, including the admission of villagers into Israel for the purpose of providing them with medical care. The scope of this assistance and its elements are immense by any standard. Lives have been saved, the Syrian residents (despite the fact that they had been educated to believe that we, the State of Israel, are at the very least the cousins of the Devil) have realized that in a time of trouble, when everyone else had abandoned them, only the State of Israel came to their rescue. So, throughout the civil war in Syria, which is still raging, the residents of the Syrian villages located close to the border were provided with some measure of hope.

As far as the State of Israel is concerned, this initiative of "Good Neighbor" was another attempt to make good neighbors, or at least neighbors feeling gratitude for the assistance they received in their time of trouble, while at the same time building a long-term relationship so that this cordon of villages may become a part of the security system protecting the border on the Golan Heights.

In view of the emerging trend where the Assad regime and its supporters are winning on the ground and regaining control over substantial parts of Syria, the question of these forces dominating the cordon of villages close to the Israeli border will soon become an issue for Israel.

Without going into the operative and tactical moves the Syrian regime and its supports will be required to initiate in order to regain control over the cordon of villages located close to the Israeli border, the dilemma for the Israeli side will be whether to allow this process to materialize in the first place.

While this might seem as merely an internal Syrian affair, an Israeli interest is at stake here as well. Firstly, it involves the security aspect directly as the question is who will be deployed along the border. Secondly, it involves the humanitarian aspect – whether Israel should stand by while, within hundreds of meters of the border, civilians will be systematically killed as they are "the enemy" and possibly also because they had accepted aid from the State of Israel, the brutal Zionist enemy.

I will neither draw similarities nor address the question of whether it is a pattern of Israeli policy to betray friends, as was the case in Lebanon with regard to the men of the South Lebanese Army (SLA), as after all, the residents of the Syrian villages located close to the border on the Golan Heights, even though they had provided some assistance to the security of this border, never actually fought shoulder to shoulder with the IDF as did the men of the SLA. Apparently, there is no comparison, but if Israel allows the Syrian forces and their supporters (Hezbollah) to dominate those villages, then in practical terms it will turn its back on the same population we had cared for in the context of Operation Good Neighbor, while at the same time exacerbating the security situation along the border on the Golan Heights.

The bottom line: it is my opinion that the State of Israel and the IDF should develop a practical-operative concept, with the emphasis placed on the employment of stand-off fire, so that the Syrian regime and its supporters do not succeed in dominating that cordon, thereby enhancing the "Good Neighbor" which, in the future, could shape a better reality along this border, as well as enhancing the humanitarian ethos that was so conspicuously absent from the war in Syria.

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Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel is the former head of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau. He served in the IDF for nearly 30 years, during which he served as the IDF Ground Forces attaché in Washington, among others roles.