Fighting in Syria near Israel's Golan Heights triggered the David’s Sling air defense system on Monday morning, and two interceptor rockets were seen heading skyward. Alarms sounded across the Golan, specifically in southern Golan communities. The alarms were a reminder of July 11, when a drone from Syria penetrated into Israeli airspace before being shot down by a Patriot air defense missile.
The Syrian regime offensive that began in June has brought tension and crises to northern Israel. After years of quiet, the regime and its Russian and Iranian backers have swept the Syrian rebels from parts of southern Syria near Jordan and the Israeli border fence on the Golan. This presents Jerusalem with a host of challenges, including Hezbollah activity and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
On Saturday night, Israel opened the border to allow hundreds of Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as White Helmets, to transit to Jordan where they will be resettled in the West.
An optimistic outlook on the Golan would foresee the Syrian regime return to the border and the quiet that lasted from the 1970s to 2011 to return. The Assad regime long ago abandoned the hope of recapturing the Golan using military force, but the regime may not be able to reinstate the quiet that reigned before 2011.
This is because the regime is much weaker than before the war, having suffered massive attrition after seven years of fighting. Damascus lacks resources for reconstruction, for which it relies on Russia and Iran. Russia has tacit understandings with Israel that have successfully avoided any kind of misunderstanding in Syria since 2015, when Moscow intervened fully in the war. If Russia has a strong hand in southern Syria, then quiet may prevail.
The Assad regime long ago abandoned the hope of recapturing the Golan using military force.
A more pessimistic view of what will happen envisions constant testing of Israel’s reactions by its enemies in Syria. Iran is on the march, boasting of its regional hegemony.
On Sunday Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the region would see the “mother of all wars” if there was a conflict with the US, and Donald Trump tweeted threats at Iran on Sunday. The “mother of all wars” is a term borrowed from Saddam Hussein, who warned the US of the “mother of all battles.”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on July 16 that “the Palestinian people will surely triumph over their enemies, and will witness that day when the roots of the false Zionist entity are uprooted.” He claimed that the “satanic and vicious plot by the US for Palestine” would be stopped.
Clearly, Tehran has Israel in its sights. But it is cautious about how to confront Israel. Its relations with the US impact on its behavior towards Jerusalem. Two days after Trump announced the US was leaving the Iran deal, Iranian forces in Syria fired 20 rockets at Israel. In addition, drones have been testing Israel’s reactions since February, when an Iranian drone flew into Israel near Beit Shean and was shot down. A Patriot missile intercepted a Syrian drone on July 11 and 13.
An article at Al-Jarida on Friday claimed Israel has a list of Iranian targets in Iraq. This comes in the wake of an air strike on an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia in Albukamal in Syria that took place in June. A US official blamed Israel for the airstrike. In addition, there have been two airstrikes in northern Syria, one on July 16 and another on July 22. Syrian media has blamed Jerusalem.
Despite the many concerns, the Golan has maintained a sense of normalcy over the last weeks. Tourists come and go, and locals set off to bathe in the local springs and barbecue on weekends. The crises in Syria goes largely unnoticed. This is a testament to Israel’s defensive capabilities. Jerusalem was able to successfully prevent a potential influx of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, through support for individual cases of humanitarian aid, while making sure most of the aid went over the Golan fence into Syria rather than hosting refugees in Israel.
But there is still fighting to come. The Islamic State affiliate next to the Golan is being pounded by the regime and there are Syrians who are fleeing the fighting near the Golan. Those are the near-term crises. The long-term crises of Iran’s influence in southern Syria will continue to impact Israel in the coming years.
Seth Frantzman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum