BEIRUT — A recent surprise offensive against Syrian rebels in southern Syria, apparently directed by Iran, may have more to do with preparing a new front against Israel along the Golan Heights and deterring Jordan than with crushing armed opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Launched on Feb. 9, the offensive is intended to push rebel forces in the Quneitra and Deraa provinces back toward the Jordanian border. If it succeeds, the effort would enable Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia group, to extend its front line with Israel from the Mediterranean coast to the Yarmouk River on the Syria-Jordan border, a distance of 114 miles. But Israel has warned that it will not tolerate Iran and Hezbollah building a military front in the Golan, its quietest border since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, despite the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Syrian territory. In an apparent signal of that resolve, Israel last month staged a rare missile strike against a Hezbollah convoy in the Golan.
“It seems the old equation is changing,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C. “Since 1973, Syria kept the Golan quiet while activating south Lebanon with Iranian help. Now the Iranians and Hezbollah have quieted south Lebanon and are activating the Golan front under the cover of the Syrian war.”
But the anti-rebel offensive may also be directed at Jordan, which has begun to play a more assertive role in Syria since Feb. 3, when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) tortured to death a captured Jordanian fighter pilot. Since then, Jordanian aircraft have bombed ISIL targets in Syria, and Amman has reportedly been mulling a ground operation on Syrian territory — a prospect Damascus has vowed to oppose. A Jordanian-based CIA training program for pro-Western Syrian rebels is set to expand in the coming months.
“I think the regime wants to cut off at the knees any scope for the Americans and others to talk about some sort of joint Arab force to move against ISIS in Syria,” said Yezid Sayegh, a senior associate at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center. “My sense is that they are trying to secure the south partly to tell the Jordanians and others that ‘Look, don’t think that we are feeble and unable to defend our territory. This isn’t a free playground for you to come in.’”
The attacking force, numbered at about 5,000, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reportedly combines Syrian army troops, members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, Shia fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan and loyalist, mainly Alawite, Syrian National Defense Force militiamen. Regional media reports say that Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, has inspected the southern front line in recent days, strengthening a belief that the operation is under Iran’s direction. One of Iran’s key objectives could be to regain Tel al-Hara, a 3,500-foot hill where a signals-intelligence facility built nine years ago to tap into Israeli communications was overrun by rebels in October.
The offensive made swift initial gains when it began on Feb. 9 with the seizure of the rebel-held towns of Deir al-Adas, Deir Maker and Danaji, but it has since slowed down in the face of fierce resistance, mainly from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies, as well as back-to-back snowstorms that have grounded the Syrian air force.
Another rebel group in the area, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam, announced on Thursday that it had launched a counteroffensive.
Israel has grown increasingly concerned over the past year about the impact of Syria’s civil war on the Golan Heights, the strategic volcanic plateau that looms over much of northern Israel and has been occupied by Israeli forces since the war of June 1967. Israel has been eyeing Hezbollah’s moves in the northern Golan, blaming the organization for a number of anonymous roadside bomb ambushes and rocket attacks. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained that Iran was attempting to “build an infrastructure of terror against Israel on the Golan Heights.”