Golan: Dangerous Escalation in South Syria Hotspot

Israeli Tanks Deployed Along Frontier as Tensions Soar

There has been off-and-on fighting in the Syrian-held portion of Golan for months now, but the situation has grown dramatically less stable in the past 24 hours, with rebels and Syrian military forces clashing in the area near Israel’s border.

The fighting started with rebels ceasing an important crossing point along the ceasefire line with Israeli-occupied Golan. The post was eventually retaken by government forces, but it added to concerns about rebel influence in the area.

As the fighting grew seemingly everybody has gotten involved in some manner, with two UN soldiers suffering injuries from the shelling in the area near the crossing, and Austria announcing that it will withdraw its portion of the UN monitoring mission.

Israel also claimed two “projectiles” from the Syrian fighting landed on their side of the Golan Heights, though they didn’t actually hit anything and Israeli officials conceded they probably weren’t aimed at them.

That still doesn’t mean Israel couldn’t react, and reports have Israeli forces scrambling tanks along the Golan frontier. They also reportedly moved against a group of refugees from a contested Golan town trying to flee the fighting, forcing them to return to Syria on the grounds that the contested town was, by Israeli reckoning, “safe.”

It’s anything but for the UN, which is struggling to keep anyone involved in the Disengagement Force. Austria had hinted that they were going to leave at any rate, expressing concern that British and French efforts to sabotage an EU arms embargo on both sides in the Syrian conflict risked their neutrality in the situation, and put their troops at inordinate risk.

The UN’s problem runs much deeper though, with Syrian rebels repeatedly attacking and kidnapping UN troops over the past several weeks. The Austrian troops represented a large chunk of the remaining force, and at this point the Philippines is virtually the whole mission.

Which has Israel all the more riled up, and Israeli Foreign Ministry officials demanding that the UN immediately find a suitable replacement for the Austrian deploying, saying they “regret” Austria’s decision.

Rebel factions active in Golan are mostly Islamist groups, with the Yarmouk Martrys Brigade the most high profile group in the area. It is unclear if, with the situation growing more unstable, more rebels will move south into the area.

In the past the Syrian military has shown a general disinterest in contesting towns along the Israeli border when they are attacked by rebels. At one point Israel was openly talking about invading and occupying those towns at any rate as a new “buffer zone,” and they may have believed there was little point in taking them back if they’re just going to be attacked again by Israel.

That seems to have changed now, with Syria’s military quick to contest anything taken by the rebels, seemingly an effort to retain the momentum they are perceived to have gained with the capture of Qusayr, a town along the Lebanese border.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for Antiwar.com. He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.