by Prof. Eyal Zisser
Israel's unequivocal demand that the Iranians and their lackeys -- Shiite fighters and Hezbollah operatives imported by Iran from Lebanon -- be kept away has still not been met.
Fifty years after the Israel Defense Forces captured the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War, fighting has reignited in the very same battlefields where Israeli soldiers fought the Syrians in June 1967. Media reports describe fierce fighting around Quneitra and intense efforts by the Syrian army to fend off the enemy -- only this time, the enemy is not Israel, but the Syrian rebels.
Now, as the Syrian war approaches its conclusion, and Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, with the help of Russia and Iran, is establishing control over large parts of the country, the rebels in the Syrian Golan Heights have launched an offensive to cement and even expand their control of the area and prevent it from being captured by the Shiite militias Iran has thrown into the Syrian war. Soon, world powers will begin drawing up borders between areas controlled by the Syrian regime and those controlled by the rebels, which will eventually be protected areas, and all the sides fighting in Syria want to gain an edge before the situation on the battlefield is frozen.
The battle now is over the stretch of territory south of Damascus that passes through Quneitra all the way to Daraa, close to the Jordanian border. This area is important to Jordan, which wants to expel the Islamic State operatives -- who are still in control of small pockets around the Yarmouk Basin -- but mostly Iran and its satellites, members of the Shiite militias and Hezbollah.
But it's clear that the area is also, and mainly, of importance to Israel, which shares a border with this battle zone.
The battles that have erupted in the Golan Heights illustrate how shaky the Syrian regime is, despite the victorious front Assad presents, suggesting that the fire could easily start up again and engulf all of Syria. The battle for the Golan is important to both the regime and the rebels, which explains the relative intensity of the firefights and the constant artillery and mortar spillover that has been hitting Israel. No one on the other side of the border has any interest in an entanglement with Israel, but someone, possibly from the rebel ranks, isn't being careful enough or isn't trained well enough or doesn't care enough not to aim their salvos at the Israeli side.
Israel has opted for restraint and has thus far responded to the spillover fire from Syria with limited, targeted strikes on Syrian army positions. This response is necessary, since shutting its eyes to isolated incidents of mortar fire would eventually expose Israel to constant shooting -- just as Israel's turning a blind eye when the Iranians smuggled the first few missiles to Hezbollah led eventually to the organization's arsenal reaching about 100,000 projectiles.
Still, it is clear that Israel's moderate, restrained response will not be enough to ensure long-term calm on the Golan Heights.
The battles there are part of the bigger war for Syria's future. Thus far, Israel has stayed out of world powers' discussions on dividing Syria and protecting the interests of the various actors. There has been no response to Jerusalem's demand that its presence on the Golan be recognized. Even worse, Israel's unequivocal demand that the Iranians and their lackeys -- Shiite fighters and Hezbollah operatives imported by Iran from Lebanon -- be kept away has still not been met.
So Israel not only has to keep tabs on what is happening around Quneitra and on local skirmishes between rebels and Assad's troops, but also look ahead to what happens next, when various agreements will determine the reality along its northern border for years to come. Will the border be calm and tension-free, as it was until the Syrian uprising broke out? Or will it be tense, like Israel's border with Lebanon? Or will it be a border with permanent conditions including demilitarized zones and security buffer zones that would guarantee calm for many years?
Until these agreements are in place, Israel must stick to clear red lines and avoid hollow or self-contradictory announcements. The red lines must be clear, and the other side must understand and respect them.
Prof. Eyal Zisser
Follow Middle East and Terrorism on Twitter
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.