One-on-One Interview with Nitzan Nuriel (Brig. Gen. Res.), Former Director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau and Associate at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).
Until several years ago, the threat facing the State of Israel from the north was Syria from the Golan Heights and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the face of these threats, Israel has developed an orderly combat doctrine over the years. Things changed with the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, and the reality that was created along the Golan Heights border was chaos and fighting between Syrian opposition forces, Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which all seek to gain control of the territory. Per to your assessment, what is the central threat facing the State of Israel today from this arena? And why?
The outbreak of the civil war in Syria and the collapse of Assad’s army created a vacuum in the Syrian Golan Heights into which jihadist organizations entered, some with a local agenda and some with a global agenda that are fighting one another in an attempt to gain control of the area. Vis-à-vis Israel, the status quo has remained along the border with the central message being “don’t bother us and we won’t bother you”. In reality, this serves the Israeli interest and allows security forces to avoid an additional battlefront. This situation is likely to change in the near future as long as Assad displays an increasing willingness to recapture the Syrian Golan Heights.
In the current situation, two organizations control the Syrian Golan Heights. The south is controlled by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which identifies with the Islamic State. The organization has also recently taken action against IDF forces. However, according to estimates, this was a local initiative and not the guiding hand of the leadership in Mosul. The threat posed to Israel by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade from the Golan Heights front is not large and can certainly be dealt with.
It is important to understand that the Islamic State is a foreign element in the Syrian Golan Heights. It is not its natural home and it does not have a support base like it does in the city of Mosul in Iraq. Therefore, should its branch in the southern Golan Heights be destroyed, the chances are small that it will manage to re-establish a branch on the Golan Heights front.
Al-Nusra Front operates In the Syrian northern Golan Heights. It is a jihadist organization considered by Israel to be mainly focused on regime change in Syria, and its activities are centered on preventing the strengthening of the Shi’ite axis, Iran-Hezbollah-Assad. What will happen the day after the civil war? Will Al-Nusra Front be a “friend to Israel”? Probably not. But for the moment, its inaction against us serves the Israeli interest.
Since the outbreak of the civil war, Hezbollah’s infrastructure is active in the Syrian Golan Heights in the framework of the assistance that it provides to Assad’s army. Nevertheless, Israel has understood from the beginning that Hezbollah has been working to establish capabilities in order to operate from this arena. What, in your opinion, is the scope of Hezbollah’s threat from the Golan Heights area?
Hezbollah’s attempts to attack the northern area of the Golan Heights and to repel Al-Nusra Front are not connected to the game of the Golan Heights, but are actually an attempt by Hezbollah and the Iranians to try to gain control over this arena. The way they see it, they believe that if they attack Israel from the Golan Heights front, Israel will respond with an attack on the Golan Heights only. Experience does show that Hezbollah is right but the strategic reality is different and the organization’s reasoning is based on a misconception. Israel claims that if Jewish communities or Israeli abroad are attacked, or if there is activity from Lebanon/Syria, then the rules of the game will be the same. In the Israeli outlook, a third Lebanon war is just a matter of time. Although Israel will not initiate it, despite any excuse given, Israel will not hesitate to respond with an extensive operation.
At the beginning of the interview, it was noted that the status quo that was created along the Golan Heights border - in which terrorist organizations are fighting against one another and in which Israel is not involved - is going to change. Assad and Iran are interested in regaining control over the Golan Heights front. Why now? What are the challenges facing Assad in recapturing the Golan Heights? And what will be Israeli policy for such a move?
Currently along the border, as previously noted, there is a non-aggression agreement. This is liable to change as the desire of the Syrians to recapture the Syrian Golan Heights area grows. To the Syrians, this issue is just as important as the battle against the Islamic State or control over Aleppo. According to the Syrians, the Golan Heights was neglected. And now the Israeli attempt to have the Americans recognize the (Israel) Golan Heights as part of the State of Israel signals that something needs to be done about the matter and that the issue of the Golan Heights can be brought back to the center of the discourse between the Israelis and the Syrians.
The physical capture of the Syrian Golan Heights by Assad presents a challenge. The Syrians are not able to capture the territory in an attack from the east because it will almost certainly flow into the territory of the State of Israel. Therefore, they must attack from the south or the north. This cannot be done without coordination with Israel for fear of entering its air space and the demilitarized zone. Will the State of Israel – via Russia, the UN or another third party – coordinate with Assad’s army and help it recapture the area? Probably not. For one simple reason – the threat of Assad and an Iranian presence in the Golan Heights is even greater. Israel prefers to maintain the status quo in which terrorist organization are fighting against one another. Of course, this does not mean that Israel will help global terrorist organizations in their battle against Assad but should a Syrian plane enter its air space, Israel will not hesitate to bring it down. In other words, Israel will make it as difficult for the Syrians as possible to capture the Syrian Golan Heights.
Will the Israeli policy be similar should Russia provide aerial assistance to Assad’s army to capture the Syrian Golan Heights? Even then, will Israel not carry out security coordination?
Indeed, the dilemma will be made even greater should the Russian army carry out air strikes. Israel has already sent a message in advance to the Russians to refrain from involvement in such a campaign as much as possible. However, the Russian policy is a kind of question mark. On the one hand, they care about Israel. And on the other hand, they seek to gain control in Syria for economic and geo-political reasons. One of the central messages that Israel sent to Russia was to refrain as much as possible from confronting Russian weapons systems with the advanced systems of the IDF as long as they are interested in continuing to sell weapons systems throughout the world. Does it matter to them? The answer is yes. A hit to the Russian weapons trade would be a direct hit on the Russian economy.
The many changes on Israel’s northern border require that Israeli security forces be prepared for both current and expected threats. What changes must be made to the Israeli security system in light of the developing threat? And how should it prepare for the future?
Five years ago, when Israel realized that the reality in Syria was changing, it took several steps to cope with the new threat. First, the fence between Israel and Syria was replaced with a new, improved border fence that serves as a significant physical barrier for terrorist organizations. Second, forces in the Golan Heights were replaced and a continuous security division was established. Third, Israeli security forces conducted intelligence on the changing reality. One of the ways they did this was by building friends and long-term sources with the Syrian refugees. There are thousands of Syrians today on the Syrian Golan Heights front whose view of Israel has changed in light of the humanitarian assistance. Those people serve as a decent infrastructure for intelligence sources in the future. Fourth, the combat doctrine has changed. For years the IDF trained for the Syrian threat, which included a breach of the barrier and capture of the Syrian area, but today the IDF is mainly training on the outskirts of Lebanon, guerilla warfare in urban areas, and adjustments were made in accordance with combat techniques and weapons. In this sense, the collapse of the Syrian army opened a window of opportunity for Israel to make adjustments to the new reality.
Looking forward, one of the steps that Israel must take is to establish a security strip along the Syrian border. In order to illustrate the advantage of such a security strip, one can image a cake with layers. The first layer would contain the security area, which includes those Syrian civilians that received assistance from Israel during the civil war. The second layer would contain the demilitarized zone controlled by the UNDOF forces. The third layer would be the security fence and the fourth layer would be IDF forces. The ideal situation for such a reality to exist would be contingent on the weakening of the terrorist organizations alongside the Syrian regime’s shaky control of the region.
In light of the above and the IDF’s recent increased activity in Syria, there is rising concern over escalation in the area. What are the implications of such an escalation on residents of the Golan Heights?
The bad news in the Golan Heights is that a potential escalation would directly impact tourism. I do not see a situation in which civilians will stop living in the Golan Heights. After all, the reality of living under daily attack is known to be part of life in Israel but it is likely to hurt tourism, which is a major economic component in the Golan Heights. An entire industry is likely to be damaged should there be an escalation in the area.
The main population in the Golan Heights is the Druze population. Since the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria, and the loss of character and identity with the Greater Syria, the Druze in the Golan Heights in Israel have begun to re-address the issue of loyalty. Are we close to a situation in which the Druze in the Golan Heights will swear allegiance to Israel?
The Druze, in their worldview, are loyal to those who rule over them. Therefore, the Druze in Lebanon are loyal to Lebanon, those in Syria are loyal to Syria, and those in the Carmel and the Galilee are loyal to the State of Israel. For almost 50 years, the Druze of the Golan Heights remained loyal to Syria. In recent years they are asking questions. Will the Syrian regime really return to what it once was? And is there anyone to be loyal to? Surely, as the regime in Syria changes its color and becomes more Shi’ite, pro-Iranian and deficient in its relations to the Druze community, we are beginning to hear voices of reconsideration regarding their loyalty. More and more Druze residents of the Golan Heights are requesting Israeli ID cards, enlisting in the IDF, registering at universities in Israel and even marrying Druze from the Galilee and the Carmel. In effect, they are closer to declaring loyalty to Israel than to Syria. When the Druze from the Golan Heights will declare loyalty to Israel, it will be nothing short of an earthquake, certainly a positive drama.
The interview was conducted by Danielle Haberfeld, Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).