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As Syrian Troops Advance Towards Southern Border, Israel Watches Intensely

Assad regime aims to retake rebel-held territories along the frontier

Pro-Syrian regime forces advanced further towards the border with Israel, the latest push in a week-long offensive to retake rebel-held territories. The assault, backed by Russian air power, has drawn the ire of the United States and Jordan, which together with Moscow last year agreed to create so-called “de-escalation” zones in the region, in which a ceasefire has largely held.

For its part, Israel has remained relatively mum, a reality that Moshe Maoz, Professor Emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attributes to a tacit understanding with Damascus.

“Israel previously supported some of the armed groups along the border in order to maintain calm. Also, for years Israel has been admitting injured Syrians and then sending them back. But now,” he elaborated to The Media Line, “it appears that [Jerusalem has adopted a] policy to allow [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to retake the area as, somewhat counter-intuitively, Israel can work with the regime.

“This is of course contingent on Iranian-backed Shiite forces being banned from operating in the area,” a key Israeli demand that, according to reports, Russia has agreed to enforce.

Nevertheless, Israel remains concerned that the fighting could spill over, as it has in the past. Earlier this week, the Israeli army launched a Patriot interceptor missile at an incoming drone, prompting its retreat. The unmanned aerial vehicle reportedly was being used as part of the Syrian army’s activities in the Quneitra region, located directly adjacent to the shared border.

Also this week, Israel was accused of striking weapons depots near Damascus International Airport allegedly used by Shiite fighters. Jerusalem has over the past two years conducted some 150 operations targeting Syrian and Iranian assets, in line with its policy of both preventing the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hizbullah in Lebanon and inhibiting Tehran from establishing a permanent military foothold in Syria.

According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel, the former director of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau at the Prime Minister’s Office, “at this stage, the Syrian offensive does not pose a big threat to Israel, with the exception of the possibility that stray shells from the fighting will fall on the Israeli side.”

Over the long-term Nuriel believes this may change given that, in his estimation, forces loyal to Iran will continue to operate close to Israeli territory. “It is not realistic that they be removed,” he contended to The Media Line. “We will see the same thing we saw in the past; the dynamic will not be altered dramatically.”

Finally, as regards the rebel groups that Israel previously dealt with that are currently in the cross-hairs of the Syrian army, Nuriel insists that “those who got help, including humanitarian aid, will remember the good and not take [aggressive] action against Israel.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that some 50,000 civilians in southern Syria displaced by the latest fighting have congregated along the frontier. Jordan, which has absorbed about one million Syrian refugees, has made clear that it will not accept any additional people.

Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said officials were “deeply concerned” for those fleeing and called on all parties to “ensure the protection of these civilians, according to international law.”

An Israeli military spokesperson related to The Media Line that the IDF “is prepared for a large variety of scenarios and is monitoring the events in the area.”