Thursday, March 7, 2013

Meet Israel's New Neighbors

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

Until recently, many Israelis could not be bothered by the Syrian revolution. It was just another news story unfolding somewhere in faraway Syria. Exposure to the story was mainly through the newscasts on radio and television. But events over the past several weeks prove that the revolution is already here, on the border fence, and in some cases, already well inside the Golan Heights. 

At first, this new situation took the form of skirmishes between rebels and Syrian military forces near the border. Then there were stray bullets or shells that hit Israeli territory, and later some of the rebels took refuge in Israel or just crossed the fence to receive medical care. But the kidnapping of 20 U.N. observers who had been tasked with monitoring the area of separation on the Syrian-Israeli border is a turn for the worse in an already problematic situation along the border. 

The Syrian regime has lost control over large sections of the country; its grip is loosening by the day. The insurgents seized the al-Raqqah Governorate in eastern Syria over the past week, the first time an entire administrative region has fallen under rebel control. 

For some time now, the Syrian regime has had no control over the areas close to Iraq and Turkey. The battle is now over who controls the borders with Lebanon, Jordan and, of course, Israel. The regime appears to be turning inward and focusing on its core foundations: the capital, Damascus, and the road from the capital to the Syrian coast (which is where most of the Alawite Syrians live). It has also exerted efforts to prevent the fall of the second most important city in Syria, Aleppo, although that is considered a secondary goal. 

For all its hostility toward Israel, the Syrian regime was a known quantity. It could be dealt with and engaged effectively, and it has been overly careful not to disrupt the peace along the border with Israel. But it is gradually being supplanted by vacuum and even chaos. This is evident in the video clips the hostage takers released on Thursday. 

A significant number of the rebels in the Golan Heights area belong to the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate. The group operates in southern Syria, and in the north, in the Aleppo region. But alongside that group there are a whole host of other armed militias. These groups lack a central leadership and are mainly composed of outlaws and bandits out for a fight; these gangs seek control of the rural regions and the Syrian periphery. These are Israel's new neighbors and we had better get used to them. If the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force leaves (as it said it might in the wake of recent developments), Israel would no longer enjoy the buffer that has separated it from the Syrian revolution. 

Alas, the revolution is now part of our everyday lives. It is no longer just an intellectual exercise for pundits and experts, who have largely been preoccupied with predicting President Bashar al-Assad's demise. 

Prof. Eyal Zisser


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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