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.
United Nations Disengagement Observation Force troops have left the Syrian side of the northern border with Israel, due to the deteriorating security situation.
The forces headed for the more secure Israeli side of the border, according to a tweet posted by The Israel Link and other sources on Monday at midday.
Early Monday morning, a rocket fired from the Syrian side of the Quneitra border crossing between Syria and Israel landed in northern Israel. The rocket exploded in an open area at about 6 am; no physical injuries were reported. IDF officials said the launch was believed to have been a misdirected “stray” from the intense fighting between rebel factions and troops waging civil war on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week 45 UN peacekeepers from Fiji were freed in the Golan Heights by their Jabhat al Nusra (Al Nusra Front) terrorist captors. All were in good condition, officials said. The troops were abducted by the Al Qaeda affiliate in the buffer zone between Syria and Israel.
They were handed over to the UNDOF troops in the Golan Heights, which has monitored the buffer zone there since 1974, when Syria reached a cease-fire agreement with Israel following the Yom Kippur War.
Fighting between government forces and rebels of various factions in the three-year civil war has been spilling over into the zone off and on for months, as it did last week and today.
According to the JewishPress.com he first went to Israel in 2008 to pursue an undergraduate degree at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. His mother’s parents were Holocaust survivors. He was in Israel in 2013 for a friend’s wedding, before he was kidnapped by Syrian jihadis in August 2013.
In his travels as a journalist in the Islamic world, Sotloff never referred to his Jewishness (or, presumably, to his Israeli citizenship). Jerusalem Post reporter Oren Kessler told Times of Israel the following:
Sotloff, Kessler said, never shared his Jewish identity with anyone in the field, opting instead to tell locals that he had been raised Muslim but secular, without mosque affiliation. He sometimes even chose to tell people that he was of Chechen origin, and that Sotloff – a name that rings decidedly Jewish to those familiar with Jewish names – was actually a Chechen name. In Yemen, Kessler said, Sotloff once allowed locals to give him a “quickie conversion,” a 10-minute ceremony meant to return him to his purported Islamic roots.
It isn’t clear how long Israel has known about Sotloff’s abduction. The U.S. has known since late 2013, but has avoided publicizing the case. That was due in part, no doubt, to the likelihood that publicity would inevitably bring out facts about Sotloff’s Jewishness and ties to Israel on social media. Most of the world – including many of Sotloff’s fellow journalists – learned that he was being held by ISIS on 19 August, when the video of James Foley’s beheading was released.
There is no predicting where all these things will go in the coming days. The imaginations of many will swivel automatically to Israel’s history of deterrence measures against those who would attack her citizens.
Examples include Operation Wrath of God and Operation Spring of Youth, which targeted PLO and Black September leaders after the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972. Another example is the IAF bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunisia in 1985, after Israeli citizens were killed in the PLO hijacking of a yacht off the coast of Cyprus.
The abduction of Steven Sotloff is a somewhat different situation, given that he would have been traveling on a U.S. passport and was not kidnapped because he was Jewish or because he was an Israeli citizen.
That being said, Israel can afford only so much to be associated with the pusillanimity of the U.S. response to these jihadi beheadings. America is no doubt courting attacks on our homeland with our continued feckless response, just as Israel would. But from sheer size of territory and population, America can absorb more such attacks than Israel can.
There is no utility in trying to handicap what Israel may do. The Israeli government has announced that Sotloff was one of its citizens – and it knows the kind of speculation and expectations that will raise. ISIS, knowing now that it held an Israeli citizen, may act from a greater urgency about seeking and identifying such victims.
In general, we can imagine that the IDF will continue its pattern of taking out the operational capabilities of terrorist attackers, whether that means going after the leadership, the bases (e.g., Hamas in Gaza), or the major weapon systems (e.g., deliveries intended for Hezbollah or Hamas, interdicted in Syria or Sudan, or on the high seas).
We can also consider what Israel most needs to do about the proximate ISIS threat to Israel right now. One requirement is interdicting high-value weapons that have fallen (or could fall) to ISIS in Syria. Where such weapons could be used against Israel, Israel will want to take them out.
But another, related requirement has emerged just in the last few days. The UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan – UNDOF, or the UN Disengagement Observer Force – has been irretrievably compromised by the attack of Syrian “rebels” on a crossing point guarded by UNDOF, and the seizure of a unit of Fijian peacekeeping troops. (As of this writing, according to Fijian news sources, the Fijian troops are still being held by the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadis, and negotiations continue for their release.)
UNDOF has been in place for 40 years, but there is no prospect under current circumstances of the UN being able to simply resume it. Nothing can be guaranteed about the observance of the disengagement agreement on the Syrian side. The condition for the peacekeeping zone is gone.
This will inevitably mean that Israel has to take a more active role in securing the Golan. That train has left the station; it is now only a matter of what is to be done – and what is to be done has everything to do with ISIS, and the fact that a hostile (or even just vulnerable) Golan is an invitation to guerrilla predation by the “Islamic State.”
How and where the Israelis enforce a deterrent posture of prompt, even game-changing retaliation will depend as much on the nation’s overall security needs as on the scope of each individual provocation.
But it will depend also on the tacit acquiescence of Israel’s stability-seeking neighbors, especially Egypt and Jordan. Israel will be walking a fine line.
Keep in mind that there is no framework of American security guarantees bounding the problems of the Middle East now. Nothing is a one-off anymore; nothing is a mere excursion from an overall state of peace or stability. Civilization has collapsed in much of the Middle East, and the expectation of civilization is tottering on the brink.
For a flavor of what this is like to live in, we can cycle back to the days just before Steven Sotloff’s abduction in 2013, recounted in a fascinating piece by Ben Taub at the Daily Beast. Taub writes about the Syrian “fixer” whose services Sotloff used to get into position for the story he was after. The fixer’s identity had been compromised not long before by an unwary Canadian photographer, who posted the man’s name all over Facebook in the process of trying to make arrangements for himself in Syria.
In that earlier incident, Taub had learned – before the photographer and the fixer were to take off on their expedition – that the social-media revelations had already put a target on their backs with the jihadis near Aleppo, who were daily throwing up new “checkpoints.” Taub quotes a journalist friend:
He’s [the Canadian photographer] under a [sic] big danger if he enters Syria, some of my contacts told me that some people are getting some informations [sic] about him, about his nationality, they know where he’s staying in Kilis, and they know that he’s supposed to come with X as a fixer tomorrow in Aleppo… tell him to be careful and that he’s under danger and people are monitoring him.
Taub was able to persuade the photographer not to go through with the trip. But “X,” the fixer whose name had been splashed around Facebook, was the one who escorted Sotloff a short time later.
The story is worth reading just for the atmosphere it evokes, of unrelieved barbarism and peril: arbitrary checkpoints, armed brigands, kidnappings, the use of social media to hunt prey. Far from being a mere artifact of civil war, this is the world the jihadis want to establish. Using social media to hunt prey hasn’t been confined to Syria, for that matter: at least one well-organized instance of it was observed in France this summer, at the same time Muslim mobs were attacking French Jews in synagogues during Operation Protective Edge.
The world in which acts of barbarism are severable, in policy terms, from the nation-state’s project of protecting civilized life is crumbling around us. There is no such thing as an inviolable condition of nationhood or civilized society. And the acts of barbarism are attacks on them, unified on a continuum with more conventional military or political attacks. Even where borders are not made to evaporate, hope and stability may be.
Retaliating for defense or deterrence against the ISIS slaying of Steven Sotloff would, in fact, be a national security measure for Israel, just as it would be for the United States. Each of us will have an opinion on which nation is more likely, under her current leadership, to take meaningful action.
UN Commander Says ‘Raise the White Flag’ as Syrian Rebels Take UN Peacekeepers Hostage, Attack OthersMonday, September 1st, 2014
The chief of Philippine armed forces says it will ask for an investigation of the commander of United Nations peacekeeping troops in the Golan Heights who asked his troops to lay down their arms and ‘raise the white flag’ under fire. Two groups of United Nations peacekeepers — both of them Filipino — managed to elude capture by Syrian rebels in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights during the past 24 hours.
The head of the Philippine armed forces, General Gregorio Pio Catapang, told journalists in Manila that a group of 32 kidnapped Philippine peacekeepers trapped by the rebels in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights had been rescued.
“We may call it the greatest escape,” he said.
“Everyone is in a safe position,” UNDOF Philippine commander Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, said, according to the BBC. “We left our [former] position but we brought all our arms.” In addition, a second group of 40 UNDOF peacekeepers – apparently also from Philippines – managed to escape a seven-hour siege by the rebels after returning fire in self-defense.
The Philippine government has announced it will recall its force of 331 troops in October due to the deterioration of security in the Golan Heights.
A third group of 44 Fijian UN peacekeepers was kidnapped last Wednesday near Quneitra by the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra terror group (Al Nusra Front). The terror organization said in a statement posted on the internet that the captives were “in a safe place, and they are in good health, and that we have given them what they need of food and treatment.”
Jabhat al Nusra seized control of the Quneitra crossing with Israel — the only border crossing with Syria — last week. The group claimed it had carried out the abductions because the UN ignored “the daily shedding of the Muslims’ blood in Syria.”
The Philippine military is planning to demand a probe of the commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on allegations of endangering the safety of Filipino peacekeepers on active duty. (UNDOF was established May 31 1974, the day Syria and Israel signed a disengagement agreement to end the 1973 Yom Kippur War.)
Gen. Catapang told the BBC that Lt. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha, of India, ordered Philippine UN peacekeepers to lay down their arms to ensure the safety of the Fijian peacekeepers abducted by the Syrian rebels. In addition to laying down their firearms, the general said the Filipino troops were also ordered by Singha to ‘raise the white flag,’ according to the BBC.
“He (Singha) said that if we were attacked we should raise the white flag. I said no way. That means our soldiers will also be held hostage,” said Catapang. The troops defied Singha and informed AFP Peacekeeping Operations Center chief Col. Roberto Ancan instead.
UNDOF is comprised of 1,223 peacekeeper troops from six nations — but it is not clear who will replace the Philippine troops in October.
Syrian rebels groups captured the Syrian side of the Kuneitra crossing point between Syria and Israel, and Israeli officials and the IDF are very concerned by both the capture of the crossing along Israel’s border, as well as the advancement of ISIS within the Syria.
But not to worry, it appears that the Deputy Commander of one of the Syrian Rebel groups, a Lieutenant Abu Zid of the Nasser Tzalach A-Din force, passed on a message via YouTube to Israel, stating they will respect all international agreements (at least as far as we can understand his message).
In the first YouTube video, we see Abu Zid’s group of rebels touring the captured crossing.
But not everything is roses in Kuneitra, as we can see in another YouTube video, a different group of Rebels, these from the Jerusalem Islamic Liberation group, which, despite the ISIS flag, may simply be radical Islamists, and not actual ISIS members (but who can really tell, these days), also sent a message from Kuneitra yesterday.
It’s only a guess, but their message just looks and sounds slightly little less friendly. Maybe its just because of the name of their band of merry fellows.
Here’s another video from Kuneitra, this time of some of the battles, from what appears to be yet another different group of Islamic rebels (Jabath a-Nutzra, linked to Al Qaida):
The Syrian news site Al-Hayat is reporting that the UN troops from the Philippines have not been captured, have not put down their weapons, and are prepared to defend their position. The standoff is tense between the Filipino UN soldiers and the Syrian Rebels. There are between 75-81 Filipino troops still defending 2 UN positions.
I don’t know if these Filipino soldiers have restored any honor to the UN, but the people of the Philippines should know that they have soldiers they can and should be be proud of.
A Syrian Facebook page claims that some of the Syrian Army soldiers claimed sanctuary in one of the abandoned UN position, and the rebels haven’t managed to break through yet.
Border tensions continued Sunday morning, following attacks by a Syrian military position directed at Israeli territory in Tel-Fars, in the southern Golan Heights. An IDF force spotted the source of the fire returned fire, destroying the position. There were no reported injuries on the Israeli side.
Israel used the Tamuz, a surface to surface guided missile to hit the target.
Saturday night there was fire from the same post at an Israeli jeep, but the Northern Command estimated that it was not intended against IDF forces. This morning, when the fire was repeated, the IDF decided to return fire.
According to a detailed report delivered to the UN headquarters by the UNDOF forces monitoring the Syrian-Israeli border, eight IDF troops had been seen entering on foot into the southern Golan demilitarized zone at the end of last January. A few weeks later, in mid-February, dozens of IDF soldiers were observed penetrating into Syria
The reports also cites several IDF aircraft penetrating into Syria over the same time period.
The same report also blames Syrian military forces for operating inside the demilitarized zone, in violation of the ceasefire agreement, in its war against the rebels. The report states that the Syrian army has been moving equipment and weapons into the zone. “This is a blatant violation of the agreement,” states the report, which also cites a reported Syrian gunfire at Israeli territory: a shell landed inside Israel in late February but failed to explode.
The report says that the IDF has warned in a letter to the UN Security Council that “if the [shelling] event is not handled, the situation could escalate.”
Last Wednesday, the UN forces decided to stop patrolling the border, for fear of a repeat of the kidnapping of 21 UN soldiers from the Philippines.
Earlier we posted about first-hand testimony from Syria confirming the scale and purpose of that rogue state’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Turns out that already Monday, with scant attention from the news media, the UN was told much the same thing. From a Times of Israel report:
The United Nations peacekeeping force deployed on the Israeli-Syrian border has begun taking precautions against the possible use of chemical weapons, and may collapse in the face of a Syrian regime offensive, France’s ambassador to the UN said on Monday.
Gérard Araud told London-based daily Al-Hayat that clashes between Syrian government and opposition forces on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights have sparked fears in Western countries concerning the safety of their nationals serving at the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.
Some of these countries, Araud said, may withdraw their men from the force, known as UNDOF, as a result. “Such a situation may bring about the collapse of UNDOF and the security arrangements between Israel and Syria which it represents,” Araud told Al-Hayat. [more]
The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force was created by a UN Security Council decision on May 31, 1974 after the agreed disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights. UNDOF’s role is currently carried out by a deployment of 1,034 troops sent by Austria, Croatia, India, Japan and Philippines; plus 84 local (Syrian) civilians and 41 international civilian staff. (We had cause to write about them some months ago, when mortar fire crashed into Israel from the Syrian side of the border – see “25-Sep-12: Incoming fire on the northern border“.)
The 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement Between Israel And Syria, brokered by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, created a security zone between the two countries and established UNDOF. Its contribution to preserving the often-tense peace between Syria and Israel is in their inspections (“not less often that once every fifteen days“) of the buffer zone along the Israel-Syria border. But that value depends on UNDOF actually having men and equipment in place to do the job. The Security Council was told Monday by its head of peacekeeping services, Herve Ladsous, that
gas masks and additional armored vehicles were sent to UNDOF as a safety precaution against a possible chemical attack by the Assad regime.
But as the French are suggesting, it’s at least questionable whether measures like that will keep the UN forces there. Japan already announced a week ago [report] that because of the “deteriorating security situation in Syria“, the 47 Japanese soldiers serving in UNDOF are going to go home now instead of in March 2013 when their tour of duty is supposed to end.
Way back in 1956, soldiers of the UN Emergency Force were stationed in Sinai near Israel’s borders with Egypt and Egyptian-occupied Gaza. Their removal from the scene came very quickly, and in the end was a simple matter of the Egyptians demanding on May 16, 1967 that they go. Wikipedia notes that U Thant, the Secretary General of the UN,
“acted to effect the Egyptian order without consulting either the Security Council or the General Assembly. Most of the forces were evacuated by the end of May”
and full-scale war in the region broke out a week later.
Not that we’re making any comparisons.
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