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Analysis: Israel feels the heat as battles rage across Syrian border

A picture taken from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke rising following explosions in a village in Syria's Quneitra province, on June 17 2015
Menahem Kahana (AFP/File)
A rebel assault on Syrian government positions is bringing battles uncomfortably close to the border

The tension on the border between Israel and Syria, which led over the past 24 hours to several "overspills" of fire, did not appear out of nowhere.

Syrian military forces and their allies have been clashing daily with different rebel groups that control the border area. One repeated scenario is rebel fire at one of the regime's last outposts in the Golan Heights, Madinat al-Baath, followed by Syrian government retaliation – not infrequently by using extremely heavy weapons.

Omar haj kadour (AFP)

The past 24 hours saw three projectiles landing in the Golan Heights region following the clashes near the border. On Tuesday night, Israel's air force responded with strikes on artillery positions in the central Syrian Golan Heights – a day after the unusual attempt by Assad's military to shoot down the Israeli planes.

An Israeli military statement said: "The IDF sees the Syrian regime as responsible for events in its territory, but nevertheless will not hesitate to operate against different rebel elements in Syria." The last part of this statement is atypical and serves as a response to the Syrian army's claim that Israel is cooperating with anti-Assad rebels.

Lebanese news site el-Nashra reported that like on Monday, Syria's air defenses again reacted by firing at Israeli aircraft, but the report had no official confirmation. Hezbollah claims that Israeli planes had used an air-to-surface missile to attack a Syrian army artillery position in an area east of Mount Hermon.

Assad's opponents near the border have in recent days changed tactics and are trying – not for the first time – to overrun the regime's final positions in the northern suburbs of Quneitra – more specifically, the area of the Druze village of Hader – a region that is of unparalleled importance to the regime given that the Druze population has traditionally been considered supportive of Assad and, furthermore, is adjacent to the Lebanese border. Battles have continued despite the ceasefire that has been declared – one that does not include every group.

The new operation by rebel factions has been called "the Qadisiyah campaign of south Syria", a reference to the Battle of Qadisiyah, believed in Islamic tradition to be one of the battles in which Muslims defeated the Persians in the seventh century. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein used the name to refer to the Iran-Iraq War.

This choice indicates that these factions are not, in their view, focusing on the Syrian regime, but rather its patrons and allies, such as Iran, Hezbollah, and various Shiite militias.

Several unconfirmed recent reports, including by the Iranian Fars news agency, said that Hezbollah is building up its forces in the area ahead of the beginning of an offensive in the south. No official confirmation was given.

A statement by those factions participating in the operation, issued hours after the Russian-American announcement of an attempt to end the war in Syria, suggested that the group spearheading the operation was the former al-Qaida affiliate that recently changed its name from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham". The group is headed by Abu Mohammed al-Julani, who only recently first showed his face to a camera after splitting from al-Qaida's central organization in the hopes of drawing attention away from himself. But similar to the Islamic State group, al-Julani's organization is not included in the ceasefire agreement and in the past day even thanked all the rebel factions who rejected the plan.

Among the most prominent of the rebel factions is the Ahrar al-Sham movement – a Salafi Islamist movement with local affinities that initially rejected the ceasefire but is now supposedly part of it. Another group named in the statement was the Bayt al-Maqdis along with other organizations in the south. It should be noted that as far as is known, both Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham are supported in one way or another by some Gulf states and Turkey.

It therefore appears that it is al-Julani's group that sets the tone. The organization unceasingly distributes videos and images documenting what it says are battlefield victories. One video contained aerial footage allegedly showing government soldiers fleeing from an overrun position. Various reports suggest that rebel factions participating in the campaign initially managed to conquer a number of important regions and press onwards, but they have not yet reached the village itself.

On Sunday they sent a statement to the residents of Hader in which they implored them to maintain neutrality regarding the battles conducted in the area. They promised in the statement to maintain the security of the residents and to ensure that there would be no negative repercussions for them as a result of the battles. They even promised to provide humanitarian routes into the village and to cooperate with its leaders to prevent disrupting everyday life – but on the condition that they do not stand beside the Syrian regime.

Syria and Hezbollah say that despite the major offensive, they have successfully blunted it until now and that the battles continue to rage. Hezbollah's military public diplomacy site is closely tracking developments in Quneitra and reporting mainly on heavy losses on the rebel side, including specific names. It also published aerial footage allegedly depicting how the Syrian army destroys a rebel vehicle – a video that raises questions about Hezbollah's presence in the area and its use of drones near the Israeli border.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are repeating the conventional mantra that Israel is assisting the rebels and is behind the latest rebel operation. Official reports mention logistical aid, help in transportation of the wounded, and airstrikes. This was also the message in a letter sent to the UN on Tuesday by the Syrian Foreign Ministry, which demanded that Israel be punished for strikes and stop what it claimed was Israel's support for and protection of Jabhat al-Nusra and other militant groups.

This analysis was written by Roi Kais and Yoav Zitun. It was originally published on the Ynet news site.


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