As I’ve written previously here, the civil war in Syria is approaching perilously close to Israel’s border and sometimes even spilling over into Israel with stray tank shells and mortars. This danger was just ratcheted up a notch over recent days.
Last week 21 UN peackeeepers were kidnapped by a group of Syrian rebels calling themselves the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. Ironically, the peackeepers were from the UNDOF mission which monitors the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. They ought to be monitoring the murderous slaughter amongst the Syrians themselves.
Sensibly fearing for their lives from the Syrians rather than from the Israelis, 8 other UN observers from the same unit abandoned their post and fled into Israel. This was quickly followed by the halt of UNDOF night patrols on the Israel-Syria border in the Golan area for fear of further kidnappings. Despite Israeli disagreements with UN peacekeepers in the past, this abandoning of UN posts worries Israel greatly because of fears that the area will fall into the hands of terrorists:
The IDF has urged the remaining three UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) member-nations — Austria, India and the Philippines — not to abandon the 40-year mission, after Japan and Canada withdrew their forces in recent months, and Croatia announced plans to do so, a Channel 2 report said.
The reduced patrols in the buffer zone, which extends for some 50 miles along the border, are already enabling al-Qaeda forces among the Syrian rebels to take greater control of the Syrian side of the Israeli border, and Israel has accelerated work to bolster security at the fence, Channel 10 reported Friday night. Israel has also deployed troops from the standing army to replace the reservists who usually guard the border, the report added.
Yesterday the kidnapped UN peackeepers were freed and they crossed into Jordan. The kidnapping and complicated release reveal the disorganization of the Syrian rebels, which can be both a positive and a negative in the fight against an Al-Qaeda takeover of Syria or the Golan:
The abduction and the tortured negotiations that ended it highlight the disorganization of the rebel movement, which has hindered its ability to fight Assad and complicates vows by the US and others to provide assistance.
Activists associated with the group, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, gave different reasons for seizing the 21 men. First they demanded that all government forces leave the area. Then they suggested the peacekeepers were human shields against government attacks. Then they declared them “honored guests” held for their own safety.
They also released videos online, including one on Saturday of a bearded rebel commander with his arms around two peacekeepers’ shoulders, flashing a V for victory sign.
On Saturday, after negotiations that the top UN official in Damascus described as “long and difficult,” the rebels changed the plan to deliver the peacekeepers to a UN team, instead taking them to the Jordanian border.
It was the first time in nearly two years of violence in Syria that UN personnel have been directly caught up in the civil war, which evolved from an uprising against Assad that broke out in March 2011 and has left more than 70,000 people dead.
Since then,hundreds of independent rebel groups have formed across the country to fight Assad’s forces, overrunning military bases and seizing territory in northern and eastern Syria while the regime maintains its grip in the center and the capital, Damascus.
Although some groups have banded together into organized brigades, most still operate independently, competing with each other for resources and booty from captured sites.
Even the rebel’s political leadership, the Syrian National Coalition, which the US and other powers have officially recognized, has no direct control over fighters on the ground. And it remains unclear how many rebels follow its associated High Military Command, which was formed in Turkey in December.
This lack of a central command has hindered rebel efforts against government forces and discouraged the U.S. and others from providing arms.
Last month, the US promised $60 million dollars in new aid for the opposition but refused to arm the rebels, saying more weapons would worsen the situation and could help extremists.
The West needs to be extremely careful with whom they support in the Syrian civil war. Just because the rebels oppose a blood-thirsty tyrant like Bashar Assad does not make them a cosy liberal democrat group. Many of the rebels are associated with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and other extremist and terrorist groups and supporting or arming them will make matters a whole lot worse both for Syria and for Israel and the surrounding countries.
As if to illustrate Israel’s worst fears, yesterday Syrian rebels fired shots on the Golan border. These were no stray bullets but deliberate fire meant to “return the Golan to the free Syrian people”:
While 21 United Nation peacekeepers were released by the rebels after being held for four days, Syrian President Bashar Assad ‘s opponents on Saturday evening posted videos showing them firing in the air not far from the border with Israel.
In one of the videos, the rebels are seen traveling in a vehicle within a demilitarized area. One of the rebels slams the Assad regime while conveying a message to Israel.
“We are now in front of the occupied Golan, the blessed land sold by Hafez Assad,” he says in the clip. “For 40 years, not a single gunshot has been fired on this land. For 40 years, not a single gunshot has been fired towards Israel.”
He goes on to declare that from now on, the rebels will fire on this land, and the men in the car with him fire in the air symbolically. He then says, “We will free the Golan and it will return to the free Syrian people, with the help of Allah.”
In another video, the rebels are seen in a Syrian town near the border, next to a sign pointing to a demilitarized zone. One of the rebels claims they have already taken over 80% of the western villages close to the Israeli border and that “with the help of Allah, they will all be freed.”
Syrian rebels have been moving closer to the Israeli border on the southern part of the Golan Heights. In recent days, rebels’ brigades near the village of Jamlah reported that they had dealt serious losses to Assad’s forces and taken control of further strongholds.
Threats such as these have led the IDF to boost its forces on the Golan border:
The head of the IDF Operation Directorate has outlined a new operational plan for soldiers manning the border in wake of rebel advances towards the border region.
For now, the IDF’s chief concern is gun attacks on those charged with building Israel’s new border fence, much like the terror attacks plaguing workers building Israel’s new Sinai-border fence with Egypt.
The IDF has also begun installing sensitive new alarm systems, armed with a special fiber that sounds an alarm at the slightest touch.
The fighters sent to the Golan Heights are supposed to back-up Golani forces and operational artillery units actively patrolling the area.
It is scary indeed to note how what began as a civil rebellion in the center of Syria has spread out to encompass the whole country, and is now spilling out in all directions. Taken together with the unrest in Egypt, another country on Israel’s border, not to mention the always simmering tension in Lebanon, the IDF’s work is much more complicated than it was in the past, during which the Syrian border was quiet for almost 40 years.
The violence in our neighbouring countries also highlights the absurdity of calling Israel’s settlements the core problem of the Middle East. How anyone can think that a few housing estates in Israel threaten peace more than the murderous Muslim-on-Muslim and Arab-on-Arab violence going on throughout the Middle East is an absolute mystery to me.