Facing the North

Extreme tension prevails along Israel's northern border and the IDF is deploying new systems and resources. Is the Israeli military ready for any development?

IDF soldiers by the northern border fence (Photo: AP)

Radars being mounted on masts all over the Golan Heights are only a part of the rapid changes that currently transform the border between Israel and Syria: against the background of the civil war raging on the other side of the fence, the border takes a new shape.

This is how it looks on the ground: the sound of gunfire was heard in early May from the direction of the village of Jamla, on the other side of the border fence system between Israel and Syria.

At an IDF post near Ramat-Magshimim, currently manned by troopers from a special operations unit, a cold wind was blowing. The weather did not prevent the parties on the Syrian side of the border from pressing on with their routine operations: on one side, Syrian Army troops loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad were clearly visible; on the other side – groups of rebels, with the deep gorge of the Rokkad River separating between them. A Syrian tank fired a shell across the gorge, at a rebel position, close to the village of Jamla. A thin cloud of smoke rose from the point of impact. No serious damage was observed from the Israeli side.

Can this belligerence be directed toward Israel as well? IDF sources point out that not less than 90 different rebel groups are currently active in Syria. Ten of the different underground groups maintain "representative branches", namely – active forces, in the Golan Heights area, not far from the Israeli border.

Most of these elements are not regarded as a major threat to Israel even on the day following the collapse of the Assad regime (assuming that such a day eventually arrives), but there is one particular group regarded as highly dangerous, and this group is gradually consolidating in the space between the village of Jamla and the village of Dar'aa, in the southern part of the Syrian Golan Heights. It is the area between the river Rokaad and the river Yarmouk, which constitutes a natural border between Syria and Jordan. The entire area is within reach (or within mortar range) of the settlement in the southern part of the Israeli Golan Heights.

The members of the group that worries Israel most of all call themselves "Jabhat Al Nusra". They always wear black garments and each and every one of them grows a thick beard, while keeping his head bald and shiny. They even shave off their moustaches, down to the very last bristle. The group belongs to the organization known as "Global Jihad". More precisely, they regard themselves as partners in the ideology of Al Qaeda.

Most of the members of "Al Nusra" are not Syrian, but Jihadists assembled in Syria from far away places, from Chechnya to Afghanistan. As far as they are concerned, the toppling of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad is only the first step on the way to a more significant struggle – against the "Zionist infidels".

According to the estimates of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, there are currently several hundred members of "Al Nusra" in Syria, and only a small part of them is in the southern Golan Heights. Most of them are located near the town of Aleppo in northwestern Syria. The group successfully dominated the enclave in the southern Golan Heights while taking advantage of the gradual disintegration of the Syrian Army in the area. In the past, forces regarded as part of the Syrian "security cordon" opposite Israel were deployed along the entire sector.

This cordon has been irrelevant for some time now. In the northern Golan Heights, members of several rebel groups, sharing a secular and liberal common denominator, dominated the territory. In the central section of the Golan Heights, Assad's Army has managed to hold fast. Its primary hold is on the area around the town of Quneitra, at the heart of the Golan Heights. If Quneitra fell to the rebels' hands, the road leading to Damascus would become wide open, and no military force will remain deployed on the road to the capital.

IDF authorities have no doubt that as soon as the members of "Al Nusra" have completed their battles against the Syrian Army, they will traverse their weapons toward Israel. They are not in short supply of weapons, or money: they receive regular supplies through irregular channels, from the bank accounts of the global movement. If the money cannot be obtained through these accounts, it can be made available as cash, from Iraq. There is no serious ground obstacle between southern Syria and Iraq, and Iraq has become a more-or-less Iranian satellite state on the day the last US troops went back stateside.

New Border
As far back as 2011, IDF Northern Command estimated that a civil war in Syria would lead to deterioration in the security situation on the Golan Heights – an area which, until then, had been regarded as Israel's most tranquil border since 1974. The initial concern was that the Assad regime will collapse within weeks or a few months at the most, and that its collapse would trigger the launching of missiles into Israel as well as the passage of refugees from Syria into Israeli territory. In the meantime, it turned out that the Assad regime has managed to hold on longer than the life expectancy predicted for it. Admittedly, refugees are fleeing Syria by their thousands, but they are going to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon - not to Israel.
Right now, the race being run on the Golan Heights is between the security situation, which deteriorates from one week to the next, and the rate at which the new obstacle is being constructed - which is said to be meteoric.

Initially, back in 2011, IDF Northern Command re-excavated a massive anti-tank ditch along the border, in the central sector of the Golan Heights. Last fall, the construction of a new fence system began along a 60-km long stretch of the Golan Heights. Countless surveillance resources, radars and cameras were deployed along the border as well. A new war room was established, employing a new technological system designated MSS (Multi-Sensor System), through which female IDF operators receive alerts of any movement on the Syrian side of the border.

The radars mounted on masts are made by the Elta division of IAI. The electro-optical surveillance devices are diversified – developed and manufactured by various industries. The project designated MSS is executed by Elbit Systems, and its cost is estimated at a quarter of a billion NIS (more than $60 million).

Over the course of 2012, a smart fence system was erected along a 9-km stretch of the border on the Golan Heights and minefields throughout the Golan Heights were renewed. By August 2013, the entire state-of-the-art border defense system will be completed along a 60-km stretch of the border. This will be the world's first border defense system based on data fusion: a multi-sensor system will transmit a massive amount of data to a main C2 center. The data will be analyzed through automated means, among other things, based on familiarity with routine activity along the border, and the ability to identify any suspicious indicator deviating from that routine.

The employment of this system will make the need to employ dozens of field intelligence operators as observers redundant. The personnel required in order to operate the MSS will be substantially smaller than the accepted norms in effect along other borders, and the data will be obtained from the field even under adverse weather conditions, 24 hours a day.

IDF Northern Command presses on with its investments, in personnel as well. In preparation for the summer of 2013, a new surveillance battalion is being assembled for this sector. The Israeli defense establishment is apprehensive of various scenarios – one of them involves an attempt by terrorist elements to approach the Israeli-Syrian border in order to kidnap a serviceman.

Against the background of the new situation, the IDF - which in the past deployed mainly bored reservists on the Golan Heights - now assign their best troops, from the regular formations, to this sector.

Syria's Future
Bashar Al-Assad's ongoing slaughter of his own people notwithstanding, Russia continues to provide him with arms on the basis of past deals. Some of the loot delivered to Syria has included upgraded 302 mm rockets, SA16 surface-to-air missiles (some of which were destroyed in an air strike by IAF, according to foreign sources), and Yakhont shore-to-sea missiles, capable of hitting any naval target, to within a few meters, even from a distance of 300 kilometers.

Russia insists that Assad pay for the goods delivered to the very last US dollar, despite his predicament, but economic support is provided by the Iranian regime, the difficulties facing the Iranian economy itself notwithstanding. The Russians provide the Syrian Army with guidance and training as to how to run a guerrilla war, but the lion's share of the military support is provided by Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah forces are even fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with troopers from Assad's Army.

The ongoing civil war in Syria has countless civilian implications. Jordan (now home to more than a million Syrian refugees) and Lebanon (now home to half a million refugees) are collapsing under the burden of the Syrian swarms, which undermine their stability. In Lebanon, the Syrian civil war has escalated to fights between Assad's supporters and opponents in the northern part of the country, near Tripoli.

Naturally, the worst fear of the IDF is a scenario where the southern Golan Heights has become a territory fully dominated by Global Jihad – a magnet for Jihadists who would continue to flock in from all corners of the earth. The IDF Intelligence Directorate has assigned a high priority to the attempt to understand what exactly is going on among the black-clad bearded rebels - and that is by no means an easy task.

The Jordanians are particularly concerned about the situation on the Golan Heights, as they fear the Jihadists not less than Israel does. US organizations are also present here, helping the Hashemite Kingdom to seal its border areas more tightly and feed the refugees.

What's in Store?
Observing the sector from the IDF post on Tel Hazeka, at the heart of the Golan Heights, one could perceive yet another illustration of the fighting going on right under the noses of the IDF soldiers. Below the post, there is a thick forest surrounding a number of villages. Occasionally, a detachment of rebels, belonging to one group or another, would suddenly emerge from among the trees and capture a Syrian Army outpost, and vice versa. In the context of these skirmishes, stray rounds sometimes hit IDF targets as well. In order to minimize the amount of errors during the hours of darkness, all IDF vehicles are now driving around the sector carrying very clear identification markers.

How will all this end? According to one scenario, the fighting may come to an end if Bashar Al-Assad were assassinated. According to another scenario, the fighting in Syria may go on for years.

In Lebanon as Well
In the meantime, the IDF is preparing to transform the border in the other northern sector, opposite Lebanon. The borders between Israel, Syria and Lebanon converge near the village of Chebaa. In the past, Lebanon had been regarded as the most severe reference threat imposed on Israel, while the Syrian border on the Golan Heights was regarded as perfectly tranquil.

The existing border defense obstacle between Israel and Lebanon was erected in the late 1990s, as part of the preparations of the IDF for the withdrawal from the security cordon in southern Lebanon.

Here, the border line defense system is based on a surveillance and control system formerly designated "Solid Mirror". This system can identify almost any occurrence beyond the Lebanese border, but it requires massive personnel for its operation.
The IDF Northern Command is preparing to implement the MSS technology along the Lebanese border as well. This border line, extending from the Golan Heights in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, is about 90 kilometers long.

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