Hezbollah operatives and Iranian military officials, is a sign that things are going to get worse in the volatile area that encompasses southern Lebanon, Syria, northern Jordan, and northern Israel. (See also here and here.)
Among those killed were high-ranking Iranian officials connected with Hezbollah’s use of Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles, and with Iranian Special Forces units that focus on raids and small-unit tactics. In the words of a retired Israeli general (see first link, and below), this was a very high-level convoy, clearly preparing for serious incursions against northern Israel.
Meanwhile, we’ve reached the point in the post-Arab Spring Middle East at which many of the spin-off developments – perhaps most of them – are a consequence of the policies followed by the Obama administration. Although there have been long-term policy failures, it’s a specific, proximate policy failure that opened the door to the current result in the Golan Heights.
Because of the strategic importance of the terrain, Iran and Hezbollah have been building infrastructure there for some time. But their interest in the Golan skyrocketed in December.
A door opened by the Obama administration
The reason: ISIS gained a foothold there when the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade of the Free Syrian Army “defected” from the de facto alliance with the U.S.-Arab coalition against Assad, and declared its allegiance to ISIS. The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade had been one of the most active rebel factions holding territory directly adjacent to the “area of separation” between Syria and Israel administered (in theory) by the UN. In particular, it has held the southern line of confrontation with Syrian regime forces, in the transit corridor leading to the Quneitra border crossing.
That defection didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened because in early December, the Obama administration disclosed (through the back door), after more than two years of cooperation with the FSA, that it would not be working with them to build a defense force in Syria.
The point here is not that Obama should have stayed with the wrong allies. The point is that passivity, lack of leadership, and ally-hopping have consequences. Part of picking allies is shaping who they are and what expectations they have. It starts with having common and enduring goals with those allies, which keep both sides committed. These things matter to a responsible power, at any rate. The Obama administration has consistently failed to exhibit signs of being one.
The failure has had a game-changing result in the Golan. Now ISIS is there, with an entrenched infrastructure handed to it by FSA factions, and Iran can’t afford to ignore that. Iran isn’t going to let ISIS build up a stronghold of its own on the Syrian border with Israel.
But don’t imagine that that means Iran and ISIS will be having at it. Think Persian. Certainly, the Iranians and Hezbollah want to be able to operate in the Golan, and attack Israel from it. But Iran and Hezbollah don’t want to invite retaliation from Israel on southern Lebanon, where it’s important to them to protect their own stronghold. Iran would like to get Israel shooting into Syria.
Israel has so far managed to keep that necessity limited. Until very recently, the impression of the situation in the Golan has been that it is relatively stable: worrisome, but not unstable to the point of being an exploitable opportunity for one or more bad guys. Iran would like to change that, in part because preoccupying the Israelis with self-defense is the key to limiting Israel’s strategic reach against Iran. The objects of that reach include, but are not limited to, the nuclear and missile programs inside Iran.