Assad Regains Full Control Over Border With Israel, As ISIS Ousted From Southwest Syria
The Syrian government for the first time in seven years regained total control over the Golan Heights border with Israel, after ousting an Islamic State-affiliated group from its last stronghold in the region. Monday’s capture of the Yarmouk Basin from the ISIS-linked Jaysh Khalid bin Walid effectively concludes a six-week campaign by regime forces—backed by Russian air power—to retake southwest Syria. The development ups the stakes in the standoff between Israel and Iran, as it raises the probability that Tehran-aligned Shiite troops, including members of Hizbullah, will attempt to entrench themselves close to the frontier. Multiple reports claim that such forces actively participated in the latest military offensive, going so far as to camouflage their identities by wearing Syrian army uniforms. Israel repeatedly has called for the total expulsion of Iranian-backed mercenaries from Syria, along with their Revolutionary Guard Corps masters, in addition to the complete dismantlement of the Islamic Republic’s military infrastructure in the country. By contrast, Moscow, the major player in the Syrian arena since intervening in the war three years ago, purportedly has offered only to prevent Iranian forces from operating within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the Israeli border. Notably, after news surfaced of President Bashar al-Assad’s victory, Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov poured cold water on the notion that Moscow retains the capacity to expel Iranian loyalists, who he described as “playing a very, very important role in our common and joint effort to eliminate terrorists in Syria.” Qualifying the statement, Viktorov stressed that Russia likewise can do little to prevent Israel from continuing to conduct cross-border military strikes against Iranian assets. Meanwhile, ISIS members that escaped the Syrian offensive are holding hostage more than 30 Druze women and children who were kidnapped last week during a massacre of about 250 civilians in the town of Suwayda and its surroundings. After the ISIS attack, Israel reportedly sent a message to the Kremlin imploring Russia to ensure that Syrian forces do not harm populations along the border, to whom Jerusalem has been providing massive amounts of aid as part of Operation Good Neighbor.