DAMASCUS/BAGHDAD – In the old quarter of Damascus, near Bab Touma, some shops are using Israeli flags as doormats, and banners carrying anti-Zionist slogans are common. A towering bronze statue of Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, stands in front of the citadel in Syria’s capital; his victory that wrested control of Palestine in 1187 has now become a tale of inspiration to the anti-Israel axis: Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
From Damascus to Aleppo, the streets display huge posters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and secretary general of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, advertising that the alliance is founded on mutual resistance to Israel’s hope for expansion in Syria and the region.
Israel recently stepped up attacks in Syria, targeting Hezbollah and Iranian positions in Damascus and the south, and pro-Syrian government forces seized part of the Syrian Golan on Israel’s northern border. This has magnified suspicions that the next battlefront between Israel and Iran-backed forces might be in Syria’s southwest, circling back to decades-old hostilities and a territorial dispute between Syria and Israel.
“All our lives we are told Israel is an enemy, we believe they want chaos in Syria,” Haider, a Syrian journalist, told Syria Deeply.
Seven years of conflict in Syria has not completely overshadowed the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, where Israel took control of part of the Golan Heights in southwest Syria. It has, however, renewed both sides’ fervor to claim the land – and allowed the Syrian government to pursue a narrative that blames Israel for the Syrian war.
“We are a secular government. why did the West impose war on us?” Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad, rhetorically asked, in an earlier meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. “Because of Israel,” she said, answering her own question.
The narrative, regardless of its truth (the West did not impose war on Syria), finds some resonance among Syrians, which indicate that if the Syrian regime were to be aggressive in the Golan, it would have the support from a section of Syrian people.
“If not for Assad, Iran and Hezbollah, Israel would walk in at any time,” Mohammad Sharif, a former lawyer in Damascus who now manages a bakery on its outskirts, on the road to Homs, told Syria Deeply.
Before the conflict in Syria, Assad was making efforts to regain Golan by offering Israel a dilution of ties with Iran. However, the war has drawn in all forms of outside involvement, from U.S. and Russian military intervention to the plethora of foreign foot soldiers fighting both with extremist groups and alongside the Syrian army. Among them are Iran and its allies and proxies.
Hezbollah, a Iran-backed Shiite militia that rose to prominence fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in the early 1980s, is now one of the most preeminent fighting forces in Syria. The conflict enabled the group and other Iranian-backed militias to entrench themselves in the city of Quneitra, in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan.
An unidentified Hezbollah commander who spoke to Levant researcher and journalist Mona Alami on the condition of anonymity in September said that his group had some 10,000 fighters in southern Syria. Nicholas Blanford, a Hezbollah expert at the Atlantic Council, said the number was an exaggeration, but he claims that Hezbollah does aim to achieve a long-term foothold in the region.
Hezbollah has also reportedly used Quneitra as a base to train Iran-backed forces fighting in other conflicts in the region. Ahmad, a foot soldier for an Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary group, said he was flown from Baghdad to Quneitra, along with other fighters, to be trained by Lebanese Hezbollah in a camp close to the Israeli frontier.
“We received three months of training in Quneitra by Hezbollah. They are very good with technology and weapons,” he told Syria Deeply in September from Baghdad, where he was fighting with the Badr Organization.
Despite the Memorandum of Principles – signed by Russia, the U.S. and Jordan in November – that expanded an earlier cease-fire agreement for the southwestern triangle bordering Israel and Jordan and called for the “the reduction, and ultimate elimination” of foreign fighters from the area, hostilities have increased in the Golan.
In late December, pro-government forces, reportedly backed by Iran-linked militias, seized the Beit Jinn pocket near the Israeli-controlled Golan, forcing more than 100 rebel fighters to evacuate, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
On Saturday, Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli fighter jet that had carried out strikes against Iranian-backed forces in Syria. This prompted Israel to launch a second wave of air raids, hitting what it said were 12 Iranian and Syrian targets, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian positions.
“Yesterday, we dealt severe blows to the Iranian and Syrian forces,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday. “We made it unequivocally clear to everyone that our rules of action have not changed one bit. We will continue to strike at every attempt to strike at us. This has been our policy and it will remain our policy.”
Before Saturday’s clashes, Israeli forces had carried out nearly 100 airstrikes in Syria targeting weapons shipments and arms convoys being delivered by Iran to the Syrian army and Hezbollah, Israel’s former air force chief said in August.
“The Israeli government’s assessment is that Hezbollah/Iranian presence near the armistice line [in the Golan] is bound to lead to the establishment of offensive infrastructure in the area.” Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Syria Deeply. “Such infrastructure can later be used for attrition attacks on Israeli civilians.”
Israel’s airstrikes on Hezbollah weapon depots demonstrate that Israel is actively trying to reduce the militia’s capacities, Zalzberg said, explaining that Tel Aviv is especially keen on preventing Hezbollah from “having production capacities for high-precision missiles.”
What’s more, Israel has been busy taking non-military precautions to secure its hold in the Golan heights for the past several years. Israel has co-opted rebel groups on the Syrian side of the Golan by offering them healthcare and other humanitarian assistance, in an attempt to expand a safety zone on the Syrian side of the frontier.
Ocampo Smadar, the head nurse in the Galilee hospital in Nahariya in Israel, says at least 1,600 Syrians have been treated over the last four years. Israeli-run buses pick up those in need of medical care in the Golan, including fighters, and bring them to hospitals in Israel, she said.
With both Iran’s allies and Israel aiming to solidify their foothold in the Golan, the Israeli-Syrian-Iranian clashes over the weekend may render the earlier cease-fire agreement obsolete and set the stage for the start of the next regional battle.
According to Sam Heller, a fellow at the Century Foundation: “The stability of that arrangement is in question, and the Israelis seem dissatisfied with the width of the buffer zone that was negotiated, so there’s a lot that could go wrong.”