Israeli soldiers prepare their armored personnel carrier in the Golan Heights. Israel has created a new front-line division to combat threats on the border with Syria. (Jack Guez / Getty Images)
TEL AVIV — Israel is flexing its military muscle at the Golan Heights frontier with the latest intelligence collection technologies and a new frontline division dedicated to combating multiplying threats spawned by war raging in Syria.
Inaugurated late last month by Lt. Gen. Beni Gantz, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, the new Bashan Division is a former reserve division reconfigured with frontline, active forces responsible for defending and defeating all threats in the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon sectors.
The dedicated territorial division, part of the IDF’s Northern Command, includes a new combat collection battalion supported by the MARS sensor-fused intelligence system and latest versions of the Tzayad digital C4ISR network, both by Elbit Systems.
“We stood up this division in the Golan Heights with quality forces more ready than ever before. It’s tailored and focused to deal with the changing threat,” said Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, head of IDF’s Northern Command.
Until the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that sparked the ongoing conflict in Syria, the 62 kilometer-long Golan Heights border was the quietest of all Israel’s borders. For nearly 40 years, cross-border incidents were rare and quickly contained by Syrian dictators Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, whose regime now barely occupies, let alone controls, territory at the border.
In response to two cross-border incidents in 2011 — when hundreds of civilian demonstrators infiltrated the Israeli annexed territory — the IDF fortified the border with deeper trenches, new landmines, additional observation posts, heavy-duty concertina wire and higher fences.
The new Bashan Division, officers here say, stems from new assessments that the IDF might have to confront far more challenging threats than civilian infiltrators in the months and years to come.
Aside from three or four villages at the border still controlled by forces fighting for Assad’s regime, Israel’s Golan Heights frontier is largely in rebel hands. Most rebel-controlled areas answer to Global Jihad groups loosely linked to al-Qaida, officers here said.
“Today, rebels control most of the area of the south Golan Heights,” a senior IDF officer said. “Among rebel forces, the moderates are increasingly exhausted while the radicals have become strengthened. The moderates lack sufficient external backing, and they’re losing the support of the local population, all of which benefits the radicals.”
Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, IDF chief of military intelligence, estimated some 30,000 Global Jihad forces are operating in Syria.
“These are not moderate Salafis. Syria has become a magnet for these activists from Europe, Asia, Australia and even America ... [and] their activities could likely result in attacks of extraordinary brutality at our borders,” Kochavi said Jan. 29 at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
In a Feb. 10 interview, the senior IDF commander characterized the al-Qaida-linked threat of Global Jihad at Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon as a disturbing by-product of tectonic shifts sweeping the region.
“For the moment, they are not fighting us, but we know their ideology. ... It could be that, in the coming months, we could find ourselves dragged into confrontation with them,” he said.
Even more disturbing than the radical rebel threat are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Hezbollah forces and another 2,000 Iraqi volunteers fighting in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. Additionally, hundreds of advisers, supervisors and commanders of the Al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are providing tactical command and control in battles against the rebels.
“The new phenomenon of Global Jihad at our borders is disturbing, but we shouldn’t be confused. Our mortal enemy remains the ever-strengthening axis of evil formed by Hezbollah, Syria and the Iranian regime,” the IDF commander said.
Northern Command assesses low interest by regime or rebel forces in provoking direct attacks on Israel over the coming year, with both sides focused on the war that has killed up to 138,000 and displaced up to 6 million over the past three years.
“Our assessment is that Assad will be less involved in areas at our border throughout 2014. ... He’ll prefer to focus on areas under his control and intensify his strategy of siege, starvation and punishment of rebel population centers,” the senior IDF officer said.
Nevertheless, Israel is likely to confront spillover violence between warring groups or attempts by Global Jihadists to provoke Israel into action against Hezbollah fighting alongside the Syrians.
Northern Command assesses high near-term likelihood of fighting breaking out between regime and rebel forces in Daara, the town near Israel’s shared border with Syria and Jordan where Syria’s 2011 uprising began.
“The only place that will interest the regime in 2014 along our border is the area of Daara, where Assad will try to shut down the resupply of rebels from Jordan,” the senior officer said.
The Bashan Division will be tasked with retaliation and rapid response to any attacks and spillover violence within its territory. “To be passive is not an option if you expect to preserve deterrence,” said Maj. Gen. Gershon Ha’cohen, commander of the IDF’s Northern Corps. ■