As the Syrian Civil War continues to garner worldwide attention and newspaper headlines, we in the IDF (Zahal) joined a senior official for an exclusive tour of our northern border. Here’s what we learned about the situation in the Syrian Golan and how it affects us.
The view of the Syrian border from the Golan Heights
Before the conflict
In 2011, the population of the Syrian Golan numbered 1.2 million. The Syrian side of the border was fully functional with its farms, UN bases, towns and forests. The small fence that separated the Israeli and Syrian sides of the Golan mainly operated as a demarcator of the border.
March 2011, the Syrian Civil War broke out as an armed conflict between Syrian military forces and civilian rebel groups. Today, the border fence is no longer the same. Not only is it larger, stronger and newly-renovated, there is a bloody war waging on its other side.
A declassified IDF (Zahal) map of the Syrian border. Israeli cities and villages are marked in blue, Syrian in red.
The crisis includes heavy fighting between multiple groups, each with their own goals and agendas. “There are two sides fighting here, the regime and the rebels. But both sides are broken down into many more groups,” explains the official.
The Syrian regime of President al-Assad is represented by the Syrian military, along with local militias that are loyal to Assad, Iran’s Quds Force, and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. Quds Force and Hezbollah forces are mostly on the defensive on the Syrian Golan, fending off rebel attacks.
The rebels themselves can be broken down into three groups: Pragmatics, Salafists, and global jihadists. The pragmatics started the revolution in the form of protests against the government. Their position is firmly anti-Assad, but not anti-Israel. Though the moderates represent the majority of Syrian rebel groups, they have a smaller presence in the Syrian Golan.
Global jihadis on our border
The largest global jihadist groups operating in the Syrian Golan are Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“the Front for the Conquest of the Levant,” formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and Shuhada al-Yarmouk. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is allied with the radical terror group Al-Qaeda, and took over large parts of the border in 2014 by coordinating with other rebel groups. Like ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was originally a faction of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but later broke from the group. “Though they recently changed their name and flag in order to distance themselves further from Al-Qaeda,” says the IDF (Zahal) official, “I doubt there will be any meaningful change.”
ISIS maintains a presence in the Syrian Golan through a local group, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which has since merged with other jihadi groups to form Khalid ibn al-Walid Army. They pledged allegiance to ISIS a year and a half ago, and they take their orders from the terror group. They control an area on the southern Golan, on the Israeli border. They have already begun implementing ISIS-style rule of law in the territory they rule, including public punishments for infractions.
The human cost
As of 2016, the population of the Syrian Golan is a mere 750,000 – 63% of its pre-war residents. 50,000 Syrians from the Golan alone have been killed, and the rest have fled inland or to other countries. Those who remain live in dire circumstances. Because of the fighting, they have little access to medical care, public works, food, and other basic necessities. The IDF (Zahal) official pointed to a sparse grove in the distance. “See that?” he asked. “That used to be a forest. The people who live there cut down the trees for firewood.”
As the IDF (Zahal) official described an incident in the Golan, two loud explosions reverberated on the Syrian side of the border. “On a clearer day,” he said, “you can see the plumes of smoke rising.”
There are 37 villages in the Israeli Golan; their 40 thousand residents work mostly in agriculture and public works. “Our job is to protect them and make them feel secure. Sometimes stray rockets and mortars land on the Israeli side of the border, and we can’t control that. What we can control, though, is our preparedness for an attack from one of the Syrian Golan’s global jihadist groups. We see what they’re capable of from their attacks against the regime – from heavy artillery to suicide bombings. We know that attacking us is part of their larger goal.”
“Everything we do here is to protect the people who live in this country.”