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The dangerous game played with Syria

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In the last week, the north-eastern part of Israel has come that little bit closer to the war in Syria. Cross-border missile fire and mortar bombs are now landing with increasing frequency in the Israeli part of the Golan Heights.
by PAULA SLIER | Jul 06, 2017

It started with 10 errant shells last Saturday in an incident the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) acknowledged was a spillover from internal Syrian fighting.

Nonetheless the army fired in the direction from where the shells had come, hitting Syrian army positions and killing two Syrian soldiers. At the same time, the IDF ordered Israeli residents to stay away from open fields and prepare their bomb shelters.

While there were no reports of damage or injuries inside the country, the army later declared the area a closed military zone.

The country’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, predicts the situation could escalate. “We won’t let anything pass, whether it’s just spillage or not. Everything will get a powerful response,” he said.

He's also warned the Syrian government and its backers in Tehran: “We will not accept Syria being turned into another base and front against Israel.”

On the face of it, the Syrian army is panicking. They’re embroiled in bitter fighting against numerous rebel groups and the last thing they need is for Israel to enter the fray. In recent months, they’ve been making advances with the help of Russia and Iran, but increasingly several rebel groups based in villages near the border with Israel, have been flexing their muscles.

This border area is particularly important to Syria’s President Assad, because it includes a strategically important road between Damascus, the Jordanian border and the city of Daraa in south-west Syria. Anyone holding this road can move easily towards the Syrian capital.

This could be the reason why the Syrian army seemingly threw caution to the wind and fired at rebel forces on the border, despite knowing that some of the fire could spill into Israeli territory. Damascus knows just how quickly, and harshly, Israel responds when its territory is violated.

Jerusalem’s policy is simple. It believes if there is no serious response to any spillover fire, the wrong signal is sent. The right signal is that red lines cannot be crossed and firing into Israel, however unintentional, is one such line. A trickle of fire today, ignored, could lead to worse tomorrow. 

But there are two issues of concern. Firstly, the number of mortars and shells that are exploding in Israeli territory are a far higher number than usual. There has been errant fire over the years since the Syrian conflict began, but not at this scale. The Syrian tank cannons that fired, knew they would hit Israeli territory.

Secondly, there were thousands of Israeli tourists in the area at the time of the fire, especially over the weekend. They could have been injured. The Syrians keep a close eye across their border and knew this.

Damascus has since accused Jerusalem of involving itself in the internal Syrian war. It says there was no way to pinpoint who fired the initial shells and hence the Israeli response effectively provided cover for those militants it is fighting - most notably, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

This organisation is the rebranded al Qaida cell formerly known as Jahbat al Nusra or Nusra Front, who has connections to Islamic State or ISIS.

Jerusalem has always been careful to remain neutral in the Syrian conflict, but there are many who accuse her of quietly assisting the Syrian rebels in their fight against Assad. While there is no proof of this, should it be true, it is a very dangerous game Israel is playing.

Reports circulating, suggest that Israel has allegedly been providing Syrian rebels with substantial funding and aid in the form of food, fuel and medical supplies as a way of maintaining a buffer zone in the Golan Heights.

While it’s been well known for some time that Israel has given medical help to Syrian civilians and fighters inside its own borders in the past, these new accusations raise the stakes substantially. The current status quo where Assad’s army patrols the Israel-Syrian border, is not ideal, but it has existed for decades.

The alternative could be a whole lot worse. Should Assad's army lose, it will be ISIS that Israel will be contending with on her northern border. 

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

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