A unique opportunity for Iran
Iran has largely been driven to this particular opportunity. The defection of FSA factions to ISIS last month forced a new timeline. But with Egypt clamping down on Hamas’s resources in Gaza, the importance to Iran of forcing a second front on Israel has been growing since the summer of 2014, when the IDF was able to destroy much of the Hamas infrastructure.
That said, the Golan represents a unique opportunity to pin Israel down in an ugly confrontation, because there is no moderating, order-keeping entity like Al-Sisi’s Egypt on the other side of it. An escalating confrontation in the Golan has the potential to draw in other parties like Turkey and Saudi Arabia: not into combat, but certainly into faction-tending and political wrangling that will worsen Israel’s overall situation.
Given the broad mix of factions on the Syrian side of the dynamic, the sheer potential to promote divisions in the Arab League, and between the Arabs and Turkey, is also appetizing for the radical mullahs. For the region’s Sunni powers, having a common concern about ISIS isn’t the same thing as having a common objective to unify around. On the Egyptian side, the existence of “Egypt,” with a government in charge of its territory, obviates the need to think up unifying objectives: you either support the government of Egypt or you don’t. But on the Syrian side, there are only evanescing factions and disputed territory. It’s a tremendous opportunity to sow chaos and create a giant, cancerous sore on Israel’s northeastern border.
Where the U.S. could have averted this
The opportunity could have been forestalled by more effective U.S. policies, even as little as a few months ago. In theory, the UN mission in the Golan, which has been there since 1974, is intended to prevent the stability problem Iran now hopes to exacerbate there. The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) monitors activities on either side of the armistice line from the 1973 war. It operates a group of observation posts in the mountains, and until September 2014 had its field headquarters in the “area of separation” between the Syrian and Israeli side.
The UNDOF arrangement was one of the network of armistice accords the U.S. should have affirmed as elements of our national interests, while the Arab Spring was unfolding. Certainly, once Syria had descended into a civil war, we should have affirmed a commitment to the armistice lines affected by that war.
Without a serious and explicit U.S. commitment, however, the UNDOF troops in the Golan have been under increasing threat since 2011, and were overrun and forced to flee in September 2014. (First, of course, dozens of the peacekeepers were held hostage by jihadis for more than a week.) Although the observation posts are being manned again, the field headquarters was moved to the Israeli side in September, and has remained there, “temporarily,” ever since. In December, the UNDOF mission was renewed for another six months by the UN Security Council, but its activities are curtailed now, and its leaders express continuing concerns about the mission’s viability.