Over the last few months, the diplomatic situation has worsened between Syria and Israel. This is all part of the building conflict of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his international supporters against the Free Syria Army (FSA) and its supporters. While Israel has tried to stay neutral, the two warring factions seem to be united in doing damage to the Jewish state by bringing it into the conflict.
The UN controlled Golan Heights border crossing between Israel and Syria. Image credit: Escia
Here is a timeline of events over the last several involving the Syrian conflict and Israel:
In February Syrian forces pulled out of the Golan Heights areas along the border with Israel. This allowed rebel forces affiliated with al Qaeda and other Islamic groups to pour into the area to harass Israel and create a buffer zone protecting Damascus from an Israeli invasion.1
In March after taking over the area, rebel groups took 21 UN Peacekeepers hostage as others fled into Israel for safety. The hostages were eventually released. 2
In April, after soil samples showed that chemical weapons were being used in the Syrian conflict, Israeli troops were convinced to offer Atropine to FSA troops in Golan. This was done at the request of Joint Counter-Chemical Warfare Center, a project created by the governments of Israel, Turkey, and Jordan. This marked the first time Israel took direct action in the conflict. 3
On May 4, Israel launched air strikes against military installations near Damascus. Israel’s involvement in the attack was leaked by the Pentagon and afterwards Israeli officials stated it was an attempt destroy missiles being sent from Iran to Hezbollah. The attack was criticized by Arab countries across the Middle East. 4
On May 8, Syria was cut off from the Internet for a while. There is speculation that this was so that weapons could be moved to Hezbollah without spies reporting back to Israel or other governments. 5
On May 9, Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah stated in a video conference that Syrian President Bashar Assad was supplying the terrorist group with “game changing” weapons. The move was Syria’s response to the Israeli air strikes. 6
On May 9, it was reported that Russia was working to supply Syria with advanced missile systems capable of hitting targets at a distance of 280 kilometers. 7
On May 13, it was reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to try and convince him not to send weapons to Syria. The talks were not successful. 8
On May 13, it was announced that for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia would keep a permanent fleet in the Mediterranean off the coast of the Middle East. 9
On May 15, it was announced that Iran had convinced Hezbollah to open a new front against Israel in the Golan Heights. “All Arabs and Muslims” are called to join the fight. 10
On May 19, it was reported that President Bashar Assad had ordered surface to surface missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv placed on standby. The missiles were capable of delivering a half ton explosive payload and Assad warned they would be used if Israel conducted anymore airstrikes against Syria. 11
On May 19, Ibrahim al-Amin, friend to Bashar Assad and editor of Hezbollah publication “Al Akhbar,” made the following statement in regards to Syria and Israel. “The rope is taut. It is taut to the limit. Anyone at either end need only flex a finger and it will break, and the great confrontation will take place. This is neither a threat, nor an exaggeration or interpretation. This is the situation on the enemy’s northern front. Now means today; it means this hour.” 12
On May 21, it was reported that a Syrian army position fired on Israeli troops in the Golan Heights. The IDF returned fire with a direct hit from a Tamuz rocket. IDF forces were ordered to return fire if attacked by forces in Syria. 12
On May 25, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to expand the terror group’s role in the Syrian civil war. According to Nasrallah “With just two words, I can muster tens of thousands of volunteers to fight for Bashar Assad.” He also stated that if Assad lost control of Syria it would signal the end of Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank. 13
On May 26, the Sunday Times reports that Russia has agreed not to sell S-300 missile systems to Syria in return for Israel’s promise of no further air strikes. 14
Why would the FSA and their allies want Israel in the conflict? For these Islamists and their allies its a win-win. Any damage Israel does to the Assad regime makes it easier to obtain their goal of taking over Syria. At the same time, any damage done to Israel weakens the Jewish state and is icing on the cake.
Why is Russia supporting Assad? The country has a naval facility in Tartus and as reported above has just reinstituted its Mediterranean fleet. As Russia’s primary access to maritime waters is through ports that are frozen part of the year, the base in Syria is very important to them and would probably be revoked under a Muslim Brotherhood controlled Syria. Granted they could hold the area militarily, but they learned their lesson about holding territory against Islamic fundamentalists through Afghanistan in the 1980’s and more recently Chechnya. It is much easier to maintain the status quo and keep the current regime in power, even if that power is fractured and contested by the FSA or Israel.
Why is Hezbollah supporting Assad? The terror group based in Lebanon is an Iranian proxy and the Iranians desire to maintain influential ties to both Syria and Lebanon. They also wish keep Israel busy with other conflicts so that they can continue working on nuclear weapons and missile technology. If Israel is caught in a long war of attrition with Syria, they are more likely to not take action if Iran crosses the “red line” as laid out by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
So, as the year has progressed the situation in the Golan Heights has worsened dramatically. In a situation similar to Israel’s Sinai border with Egypt, there are a variety of Islamic forces lined up and ready to launch attacks. At the same time President Assad has warned of a war of attrition against Israel and his allies in Iran and Russia seem willing to support such a conflict. A quick direct strike by Israel would likely finish off the Assad regime, but Israel has now promised Russia that such strikes would not happen. On the other hand, a long slow war of attrition in which Islamic groups around the Middle East were invited to join would be devastating to Israel and beneficial to both Assad and Russia.
John Daniels (@TavernKeepers on Twitter) is a researcher and educator who focuses on world events primarily in Europe and the Middle East.
He is the managing partner of the news and commentary website Tavern Keepers