The Islamic State, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, is a cancer that should not be allowed to spread. It advances a “genocidal agenda” and “no civilized country should shirk its responsibility to help stamp out this disease.”
For the past week, the Israeli army has watched as a different strain of that same malady set up camp along the border, hoisting the black al-Qaeda flag over the Quneitra crossing on the Golan Heights. Israeli farmers have been ordered back from the border, as the ongoing fighting has occasionally spilled over.
And although it’s probably wrong to speak of ideology, however odious, as disease, because the cure can be overly aggressive, there is no doubt that the fall of Quneitra, for now —Assad’s forces are battling to take it back— represents a significant milestone en route to the destabilization of a border region that has been largely tranquil since US secretary of state Henry Kissinger pushed Israel and Syria to sign a disengagement agreement on May 31, 1974.
In the wake of this destabilization in the Golan, the defense establishment has grappled with two central questions: Who does Israel want to see emerging as the victor? And what should be done in the meantime?
The army, concerned primarily with the reality that has taken shape in the Golan — less so with the geopolitical implications of jihadist instability versus a triumph of the Syrian-Hezbollah-Iran axis — has re-hauled its deployment in the Golan Heights.
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the commander of the IDF General Staff, ordered a major shift last fall. He relieved Division 36, one of the army’s only conscripted armored divisions, of its duties in the Golan Heights — the threat of a Syrian ground assault seems to have expired — and assembled, on the sloping plateau, a newly reconfigured regional division. These troops are focused not on ground maneuvers and firepower, the ingredients necessary to win wars, but rather on perimeter security.
The border fence itself, which is still under construction and is similar to the fence along Israel’s southern border with Egypt, is dug deep into the ground. “The old one,” the officer said, “could be knocked over with one kick and easily crossed with a ladder.” The new one is protected by an anti-personnel ditch, is impassable to throngs of people, and is strong enough to detonate an incoming anti-tank missile before it reaches its target.
Today, clearly, the main purpose of the 15-foot-high steel barrier has little to do with popular uprisings; it is the face of a potent Israeli deterrence set on keeping IS and al-Qaeda at bay.
During the past year-and-a-half, ever since 21 Philippine peacekeepers were abducted from their posts in the Golan in March 2013, it would seem that the UNDOF troops have been given more tools to ensure their safety and allow the continuation of their mission, which was meant to be executed during, and only during, times of tranquility.
Additionally, the terrain works in Israel’s favor, with the Israel Defense Forces positioned on the high ground, along the line of the hills, on the Golan. The possibility of the region becoming akin to the Jordan Valley during the one-thousand-day period between the close of the 1967 war and September 1970, during which PLO terrorists repeatedly infiltrated into Israel, is certainly, regrettably, a possibility, if the organizations near the border choose to focus on Israel.
“The worst outcome in Syria is a chaotic situation… meaning a vacuum in which al-Qaeda elements, terror elements will come in and will challenge us, will challenge Jordan, will challenge the stability of the region.”