Conflict in the Middle East is a given. For thousands of years, a succession of invading armies marched across the region in what was once called the ‘fertile crescent’. They marched from ancient Mesopotamia on the Persian Gulf, through what is now Israel, and south into Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. And back again. The Crusaders came in ships, crossing the Mediterranean from Europe to conquer the territory and its people, and years later, Napoleon tried to do the same, although he failed. The land of Israel lies in the heart of the Mediterranean basin, and offered invaders access to the riches of the new lands they acquired by force of might. 

Today the State of Israel lies in the heart of the region, and the conflicts that now rage throughout the Middle East carry on the bloody heritage of its past. Israel’s neighbors are torn by wars waged by both foreign armies and terrorist groups operating from within their borders. 

For example: 

  • Lebanon is now under the control of Hizb’allah, a terrorist surrogate of Iran. 
  • Gaza is now run by Hamas, whose mismanagement has brought war with Israel to its city streets, and despair to an increasingly impoverished and desperate people. 
  • Syria has been in a long ‘civil war’ that has been raging since 2011. The conflict has brought countless terrorist groups onto the battlefield that also includes the military might of Syria, Iran, Russia, the U.S., and Israel. It has already brought death to more than half a million people.

Since March 30, 2018, Israel has been pre-occupied with the weekly riots on the Gaza border that has left thousands wounded and more than 600 Hamas terrorists and civilians dead. But as the situation in Gaza becomes old news, it is Israel’s northern border with Syria that has shown the latest signs of heating up.

Unlike the situation in Gaza, the potential for conflict along the Israeli-Syrian border is global. The presence of so many national interests participating in the ‘civil war’ may have significant international consequences that could lead to a wider war involving not only Israel and Syria, but also Lebanon, Jordan, and, more important, Iran, Russia, and the United States. And the consequences could be nuclear. 

The issues are complex, made even more so by the malevolent presence of ISIS and a host of other terrorist groups still active throughout Syria. This singularly ‘uncivil war’ has decimated the country’s civilian population. The death toll now exceeds half a million Syrians – men, women, and children – murdered by the various opposing sides, including the Syrian government itself. Among the dead are tens of thousands of Syrian Christians, who were targeted by Assad, ISIS, and a host of Muslim terrorist groups. While thousands of Syrians were part of the large migration of the last few years and taken in by both European countries and the United States, only a tiny percentage of them were Christians. The vast majority, well over 90%, were Muslims. Those most at risk were left behind. Since 2011, the population of Christians in Syria has fallen from 1.25 million in 2011 to less than half a million by 2016. And those who remain continue to be at high risk.

On the Border Between Israel and Syria 

Israel’s northern border with Syria presents an ongoing and complicated threat. Since the Six Day War, the border with Israel has been located on the Golan Heights, extending from Lebanon in the west to Jordan in the south. Israel captured the Golan during the 1967 war, in response to a massive attack by the combined forces of Syria, Egypt, and Jordan on three different fronts. Today, the Golan Heights is divided between Israel and Syria.

What’s so important about the Golan Heights?

The Golan Heights overlook the entire area of northern Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee. At its highest point, the Golan is approximately 600 feet above the level of Israel to its west. Prior to 1967, Syrian military units were stationed on the mountains of the Golan and rained fire regularly down onto the Israeli farmers in the valley below. 

From the Golan one can see Haifa on the Mediterranean shore, which is one of Israel’s largest cities, and an important industrial hub. Moreover, Haifa Bay is one of two main Israeli ports (the other is Ashdod in central Israel). Haifa also forms one piece of the strategically vital triangle of cities that also include Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Within this triangle lives most of Israel’s population. Clearly, the Golan provides a strategic advantage to whoever controls them.

Looking in the other direction, eastward from the Golan, the outskirts of Damascus can be seen with the naked eye. This gives Israel a strategic advantage when surveiling the area for threats and terrorist activity. It also enables the use of electronic surveillance deep into Syrian territory, giving Israel an early-warning capability in the event of an impending attack. 

Despite the constant threat, however, since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, this has been one of the quietest and safest of Israel’s borders.  Until now. 

Once Again – Israel in the Crosshairs

During the last seven years, Assad has been heavily supported by Iran, which has provided heavy weapons, missiles, funding, and IRGC support, as well as by Hizb’allah, which, like its benefactor, has vowed to destroy the state of Israel. 

The presence of Iran in Syria has generated a strong reaction from Israel, which considers the proximity of Iranian assets and weaponry the most significant threat facing the country today. Because Iran is a sworn enemy of Israel, the possibility of it’s gaining too much power in Syria, and bringing its significant influence and war machine right up to the Israeli border, is one Israel takes most seriously.  

In July 2017, a ceasefire agreement for southwest Syria was brokered by the U.S. and Russia, but it was opposed by Israel for not taking its own security concerns into account, for not explicitly referring to Iran and the threat that it poses to the region, and for not including the terms under which Iran would withdraw from Syria once the agreement was formalized.  

As a result, Israel has found it necessary to continue to maintain its own security. In December 2017, Israel acknowledged that it had carried out nearly 100 aerial raids against military targets in Syria, including Iranian military bases, ammunition storehouses, and arms convoys belonging to Syria and Hizb’allah. 

Since ISIS took over significant parts of northern Syria, it has become an additional threat against Israel. Like its terrorist comrades throughout the region, ISIS holds Israel responsible for most of the ills afflicting the world, and wants to be a part of its demise. However, over the last two years, the joint forces of the U.S. and Russia expanded the fight against the Islamist State with aerial attacks against its strongholds in northern Syria. As a result, ISIS’ territory began to shrink, and ISIS moved some of its activities to the south, particularly in and around Damascus. By the end of July 2018, Israel was on high alert. 

On the night of July 31, Israel intercepted seven ISIS terrorists as they approached the border, and entered the demilitarized buffer zone between the two countries. An Israeli patrol tracked them as they came within 200 yards of the border, when an IDF aircraft fired on them and killed seven of them. The following morning, Israeli soldiers crossed into the buffer zone to search for the bodies, and found AK-47 automatic firearms, grenades, and explosive belts on them. 

Israel Provides Humanitarian Aid to Syrians at the Border

With all the horror of war on its northern doorstep, there is another side to this war. Israel is well-known for its humanitarian efforts throughout the world in times of natural disasters. For example, within three days of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Israel provided the fastest and possibly the most critical medical response during that disaster. This included a fully-functional field hospital, built in place by the IDF, and staffed by dozens of doctors and other medical professionals. They treated thousands of Haitians and provided a critical link in medical care that saved an untold number of lives despite the chaos surrounding them. 

Israeli soldier feeds a Syrian baby in a field hospital built to serve Syrians wounded in the civil war raging around them. (Photo: IDF)

Likewise, in the Golan, Israel has provided assistance to wounded Syrians, combatants and non-combatants alike, but with particular concern for children. In a program called Operation Good Neighbor, Israel offered Syrians the medical care they could not get in the war zone. 

Beginning in 2013, Israel treated more than 3,000 Syrians in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals throughout northern Israel. More than 600 Syrian children, accompanied by their mothers, were among those treated in Israel. At the same time, Israel sent hundreds of tons of food, medical equipment, and clothing into Syria. The amount of food that Israel sent grew from a few dozen tons during the period between 2013 and 2016 to 360 tons in 2016 and 2017. The amount of clothing, baby formula, medical supplies, diesel fuel, and electric generators sent into Syria during that period also increased significantly. 

Israeli soldiers bring wounded Syrian across the border into Israel for emergency medical care. (Photo: IDF)

This aid continues until now. In mid-July 2018, during one week alone, Israel transferred 72 tons of food, 70 tents, and 9,000 liters of fuel, as well as medicine and medical supplies, clothing, and toys across the Golan Heights frontier and into Syria. 

The generosity of the Israelis does not go unnoticed by the Syrians caught in the middle of the war. A Syrian man who was wounded in the war and received medical care in Israel said, “Israel is the only country that has done something like this with the Syrians. Israel is the friend of the Syrian people, a humanitarian country.”

On July 16, hundreds of Syrians, some waving white flags, approached the Israeli border, seeking refuge from the war in Israel. Israeli soldiers were forced to turn them away, and one on them, using a loudspeaker, shouted to them in Arabic, “You are on the border of the State of Israel. Go back. We don’t want to hurt you.” The crowd reluctantly returned to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps inside of Syria.

But all the good will and humanitarian aid has done little to defuse the hatred of the Assad regime, Iran, and the terrorists on the Syrian side of the border.  The complexities of the border region have been profound. One of Israel’s primary issues is the continued presence of Iranian assets on its northern border. This is because the possibility that either an attack on Israel, or more likely, an Israeli counterstrike would trigger a much wider conflict, is real and speaks to a great danger for the entire region. 

Several recent events in the region suggest continued unrest and an uncertain future: 

  • Russia tried to broker a deal to move Iranian assets away from the Israeli border, offering a 62 mile between the Golan ceasefire line and Iranian forces, but Israel turned it down. On July 20, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said firmly, “Israel will continue to act against any attempt by Iran and its proxies to establish a military presence in Syria.
  • According to one Russian official, “Iranian forces have actually been withdrawn from [the southern buffer zone in Syria] in order not to irritate the Israeli administration”  But the arrangement may not hold. Iran has not shown itself to be a reliable partner in any agreement. And, to prove the point, one Iranian official suggested, “the liberation of the occupied Golan Heights is possible with Syrians’ efforts”.
  • The thwarted attack by ISIS fighters may be a warning of future attempts by the  terrorist group that has been difficult to destroy. Its presence in southern Syria poses a threat to Israel that must be taken seriously.
  • On July 26, two rockets, fired from Syria, landed harmlessly in the Sea of Galilee. The rocket launchers in Syria, claimed by ISIS, were taken out by an IDF aerial attack, which were also reported to have killed several ISIS fighters on the ground.
  • On July 24, a Syrian Sukhoi fighter jet was shot down and its pilot killed when it infiltrated Israeli airspace. 
  • On July 22, Israel facilitated the evacuation of 100 civil defense volunteers known as ‘White Helmets’ and 322 family members from a war zone in Western Syria, where they had become trapped following an offensive by the Syrian military. Israel moved in at the request of the U.S. and several European nations. The operation took the families through Israel to safety in Jordan.  
  • Iran’s government, for all its bluster and rhetoric, is at risk at home. Demonstrations on the streets of Iran are spreading, while the government is showing signs of splintering. Some analysts predict that the Khamenei government won’t last another year. So its role in Syria may be in jeopardy, and its threat to Israel may change in nature – it may either weaken, or may, in a monumental effort to retain power, become an even greater threat by dragging the region into a new and more terrible war. 
  • As the Assad regime begins to take control of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, Hizb’allah, which has been Syria’s ally during the ‘civil war’, has been seen moving in to fill the void. Hizb’allah’s fight with Israel has nothing to do with Assad. It has to do with its deep hatred of the Jewish state, and once entrenched along the border, it poses a new and dangerous threat to Israel that has little to do with Syria’s ‘civil war’. As a surrogate of Iran, Hizb’allah serves as Iran’s agent in their shared hatred of Israel. If Hizb’allah is allowed to take the place of Iran in the border area, then Russia’s efforts to remove Iran will be wasted, and Israel will be at the same risk as though Iranian forces were themselves present. 
  • Finally, on August 3, Russia announced that in order to prevent tensions between Israel and Syrian forces/Hizb’allah in the Syrian Golan Heights, it will be deploying its own military police into the area. This may be hopeful, because PM Netanyahu has made an effort to have an open dialogue with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in order to avoid conflict in the skies above Syria. It is possible that Russian influence may help to stabilize the area north of Israel’s border. But, like Iran, Russia has not always been a reliable partner, so the result of its presence near the border remains to be seen.

While Syria’s ‘civil war’ winds down, and Iran’s role in Syria remains in question, the future of the region and Israel’s security on its northern border continues to be in the balance. There is not likely to be a single, small battleground in the next war. If it begins here, it will be massive, it will involve many nations, and it will be catastrophic. It is incumbent on the governments involved to make certain that it does not begin.

Ilana Freedman is a veteran intelligence analyst and advisor in intelligence-led counter-terrorism solutions. Trained in Israel, where she lived and worked for sixteen years, she returned to the U.S., and served as CEO of Gerard Group International in Massachusetts until 2009. Since then, Ilana has been an independent consultant, working with major corporations and government agencies on security issues. Her global network of specialists and field assets provides an ongoing resource of critical, real-time intelligence and domain expertise. Ilana is the author of many articles on the terrorist threat to America and the West, and four books on Islamic terrorism.