March 15 marked the third anniversary of the beginning of unrest that led to the ongoing Syrian civil war. As the conflict drags on into its fourth year with no end in sight, Israel, which shares a contentious United Nations-patrolled border with Syria in the Golan Heights region, finds itself in a precarious situation due to new threats such as al Qaeda-affiliated rebel terror groups as well as old foes like Hizbullah, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“None of the sides is capable of a decisive victory to end the war and rule over the entire country,” Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Air Force general and former head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate, told JNS.org. “It has been a moral disaster.”
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the conflict has resulted in more than 146,000 deaths, while more than 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced, resulting in the worst humanitarian disaster of the early 21st century.
Despite the massive humanitarian toll and the use of chemical weapons against his own people, over the past year Assad has seen his fortunes improve as Western and Arab countries, unsuccessful in ending the conflict diplomatically, have been unwilling to directly intervene.
Even as a massive civil war rages to its north, Israel has maintained a strict policy of neutrality in the conflict, not wishing to be drawn in like it was during the 15-year Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nevertheless, Israel has become involved on a limited scale when its direct interests are threatened, such as when it reportedly launched air strikes against advanced weapons convoys destined for the Lebanese terror group Hizbullah.
As the civil war has dragged on, al Qaeda-affiliated terror groups have become increasingly dominant within the rebel ranks, worrying Western and Israeli officials. Two of those groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have displaced the relatively moderate and secular Free Syrian Army as the main rebel force fighting the Syrian government.
Despite these concerns, southern Syria, even with the losses by the Syrian government, has not seen a large influx of jihadist fighters that has affected northern Syria.
Yadlin says he does not yet consider the jihadists groups to be a serious problem for Israel.
“I don’t belong to the group that believes that the terrorist threat in Syria is very serious at this time. While it does pose a problem, Israel knows how to handle terrorists, especially when coming from a well-defined border such as the Golan Heights,” said Yadlin, head of the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies.
Last month the IDF announced it was deploying a new division to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights to maintain “operational readiness,” according to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz.
The newly created 210th Regional Bashan Division replaces the 36th Armor Division, which had patrolled the Syrian border for nearly 40 years and was designed to fight conventional military threats such as a Syrian land invasion.
But with the Syrian military severely weakened by the civil war and the loss of control of large swaths of southern Syria, the threat of a conventional ground war has severely diminished, forcing Israeli military planners to recalculate the emerging threats in the region, such as terror groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.
Yadlin told JNS that Israeli military officials are on top of the ongoing changes in the area and are preparing the IDF to meet these emerging challenges.
“Israel has a topographical advantage there [in the Golan Heights], very good intelligence and new highly trained military support in the area,” Yadlin said.