The border between Israel and Syria is one of the most beautiful areas in Israel, especially during this time of year. A few years back, while on reserve duty, I spent a few weeks patrolling the stretch of border starting from the foothills of Mount Hermon and ending approximately sixty kilometers south. I remember waking up a number of times during the night, tottering out of our warm bunkers into the frozen and snowy surroundings of our outpost, and driving our armored vehicle to the section of the border fence that was triggering an alarm. Overcoming the cold and fatigue, we bravely fought off the repeated attacks by a variety of four-legged animals that did not seem encumbered by the harsh weather conditions, and were certainly not alarmed by the sudden appearance on site of a worn out bunch of reservists.
I realized then, as I did during similar activity on the border with Jordan, that the fact that the tiresome task of patrolling the tattered fence was given to old and haggard reservists, and not a better-trained and fresh regular army unit, reflected Israel’s current map of dangers and threats. The Syrian border was, after all, the most stable and quiet border Israel had back then. This realization was reinforced about a year ago, when I heard that Israel is now sending regular soldiers for this mission, and was also constructing a new sophisticated fence to counter the changing circumstances. Over the last weekend, these circumstances took the form of an IED exploding on the border with Syria in the very same area I patrolled with my unit, and targeting an Israeli patrol. No causalities or serious damage suffered.
When Assad began his struggle against the rebels, the Israeli jury was out on the question of who to support. Despite ties with Iran and Hezbollah, and his traditional hawkish views towards Israel, there were those in Israel who pointed out that a Syria with Assad was better than a Syria without Assad. Warning of a possible calamity for Israel should Assad’s iron grip on Syria weaken, these voices warned of the hundreds of Islamic extremists flocking to join the battles in Syria who could just as easily point their weapons towards Israel. Despite the very valid arguments presented at the time, these voices were relatively subdued compared to those calling and wishing for Assad’s downfall, especially in light of the growing evidence pointing to the usage of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime against Syrian citizens.
Israel has largely done a good job of not getting actively involved in the struggle. The attack over the weekend marked the first deliberate effort since the Syrian civil war began, to target an Israeli patrol on the border with explosives. Errant fire from Syria has landed in the Golan Heights scores of times over the past two years, and the Israeli military has responded at least a dozen times to attacks it judged to be intentional. Despite being a clear-cut case of a military strike against its forces, the IDF did not respond in any way, mostly since there was no visible target – as is often the case in guerrilla attacks. But what would occur in a different and more complicated scenario? (e.g. an abduction of a soldier on the border).
The case of the IED may be isolated, and we are still a long way from identifying a pattern of any kind. No group has taken responsibility for the attack, and there is no evidence on the ground of a overarching strategy. Still, this incident signifies an escalation. At the very least, placing an IED on or nearby the fence necessitates some kind of planning and audacity. As opposed to the other incidents that we’ve witnessed over the past two years, that merely require pointing a projectile and pulling a trigger.
Earlier this month, the Israeli top leadership was debriefed by the Mossad on Israel’s overall strategic situation. Despite the secrecy attached to the meeting, some details were leaked, probably purposely. According to these leaks, due to the dismantlement of Assad’s chemical stockpile, Israel’s security threat from Syria has diminished. There was no public mentioning of the other threats now emanating from Syria, and I hope and believe that this does not reflect Mossad’s complete intelligence assessment. Israel must be prepared for any event, including the possibility of needing to react with more speed and resolve in the case of a different outcome.
Anyone still rooting for Assad’s downfall?