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Will This Week’s Attacks Draw Israel into the Syrian Conflict?

After the Israeli army fires air strikes at Syrian army points over the Golan Heights cease-fire line, fears grow that the country will be pulled further into the three-year-old civil war. From Herzliya, our experts weigh in on that possibility.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

On Wednesday, the Israeli army fired air strikes at Syrian army artillery barracks and a training facility, crossing the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights. Israeli officials said the attacks were in response to a bomb attack against Israeli troops at the same area on Tuesday.

The strikes, the first in Syrian territory to be acknowledged by Israel in three years of conflict, raised questions about who had carried out Tuesday’s attack, and prompted Israeli fears of further entanglement in Syria.

We asked Tommy Steiner, senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy and IDC Herzliya, and Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, to weigh in.

Syria Deeply: Who was likely responsible for the attack on Israel?

Jonathan Spyer: Once we get beyond that to ask who carried out the attack and with what motive, then we get into realms of speculation. The general thrust in the Israeli media has been to attribute the attacks to Hezbollah for the following reasons: Hezbollah had a clear motive after the alleged Israeli attack of a convoy on Feb. 24, just west of the Syria-Lebanon border. Secondly, the sophistication of the bomb device indicates a level of professionalism we wouldn’t normally associate with Syrian jihadis.

We know that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is not usually thought to be active in southern Syria; they are situated further north and east. For that reason, if it were to be them, how did they get down there and avoid surveillance, other rebels and the Syrian army? So as to the evidence we currently have, it most likely was Hezbollah.

Tommy Steiner: Last time I checked, Israel still doesn’t know who exactly is responsible for the attack and the placing of explosives near the border. Hezbollah is the most likely possibility, but there’s no confirmation. Hezbollah, or whoever carried this out, has been very careful to keep a very low profile. Israel’s not coming out and saying, We have evidence that it is Hezbollah. [If that is the case], in a sense, it’s an extension of Israel’s rivalry with Hezbollah more than the Syria conflict in itself moving into Israel proper.

This is triggered by the assumption that Hezbollah was behind this. This was a counterattack on what Israel apparently did to a convoy of arms that was on its way from Syria to Lebanon on Lebanese territory. And again in that sense, it’s the indirect impact of the conflict in Syria. Israel has rearranged its full structure in the Golan Heights. Instead of an armed division, we have infantry units stationed there that are more capable of doing routine security of the border and border patrols. Israel built a considerable fence along the Syrian border months ago to provide more security to the Golan, and so far that has been working.

SD: Will this incident affect Israel’s aid to Syrian refugees seeking medical help?

Steiner: Israel has on the sidelines been providing medical and humanitarian aid to refugees who have reached the border. I don’t think that will change. The working assumption is that people on the other side of border know they can come here for medical treatment. [For that to happen] I’d assume there’s contact between Israel and the more moderate rebels operating around the Golan area. That would be a fair assumption. I don’t think Israel is supplying them arms, but would not be shocked if it was sending in military supplies. There seems to be some kind of contact or liaison, because attacks don’t just come to the border out of nowhere. But the nature of an exchange is unclear, and both sides are keeping it quiet.

SD: How is the story being reported inside Israel this week?

Steiner: It captures the front pages. This time around, soldiers were injured, one critically. So that did get the headlines. But there’s no sense of anxiety with regards to the Golan. The regional balance is really changing in front of our eyes, [but] Iran is still the arch enemy, and ISIS isn’t on [Israel’s] border.

SD: What will happen next?

Spyer: There is a factual conclusion that everyone can reach which is that the border between Israel and Syria, the Israel and Syria-controlled Golan, which has returned to being a conflict zone in a way we haven’t seen in a long time. If we think of the roadside bomb, this type of attack is [different] from what we’ve seen in the past, which was rockets coming over the border, usually strays from battles between the government and rebels. This is an escalation on a border that has been armed to the teeth since 1975, but which has been extremely quiet.

In the past, the Syrian government preferred to conduct its paramilitary business with Israel via other people’s borders, the most important being the Lebanese border.

What seems to be developing on that border is the same logic that pertained between Israel and Hezbollah prior to the 2006 war. It’s periods of escalation followed by periods of quiet. Neither side wants to see a deterioration into all-out conflict. At same time there is a latent conflict as each side tries to deter the other. It’s an extremely unstable system, very fragile. It’s tit for tat: you have an attack, a response, and both sides hope for de-escalation.

Now the ball is in Assad’s court. Does Assad want to respond and open another round? My sense is that it’s not likely right now. But the border is now an active border of conflict, which means there will probably be another round not too far down the road.

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