Radical Islamist militants now rule the vast majority of territory on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, an Israeli military commander says, placing them in strategic position to threaten northern Israeli communities.
Col. Anan Abbas, deputy commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ Golan Brigade told Israel’s Channel 10 News that 95 percent of the territory of the Golan Heights on the Syrian side of the border with Israel has fallen under control of jihadist rebels.
Among the militants controlling the area are those with the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front which has imposed strict Islamic law in the areas it has captured and just last week posted a video of its Shariah council amputating the hands of accused thieves in Al-Bukamal in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border.
The only remaining part of the Golan Heights still controlled by President Bashar Assad’s forces is the area of the Quneitra border crossing with Israel, according to the Israeli commander, who added that one of the two Syrian army brigades that had controlled the area had disappeared from the battlefield.
Though the Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other rebel groups are currently engaged in an effort to oust Assad from power and establish a regional caliphate, Col. Abbas said their sights are also set on Israel.
“[W]e know their goal is to harm Israel; we’ve seen their propaganda material,” he said.
The Israeli news site Ynet reported last week that as a result of the emerging threat from Islamist militants in Syria, the IDF has set up “attack cells” along the Golan border, that is, prepositioned outposts that could be quickly staffed in the event of a cross border attack from the Golan, speeding response time for the Israeli military.
In 1981, Israel annexed the part of the Golan Heights it captured from Syria in the 1967 war.
Former President Bill Clinton made concerted efforts in the 1990s to convince Israel to relinquish the Golan to Syria in exchange for a peace deal; however, negotiations eventually collapsed.
Much of northern Israel including the Sea of Galilee can be seen from the Golan and thus is considered by Israel to be of strategic importance to be held to ensure the security of citizens living in the northern part of the country.
A leader of the Nusra Front compared the Golan’s strategic importance to the mujahideen campaign against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
"This view reminds us of the lion of the mujahideen, Osama bin Laden, on the mountains of Tora Bora," a leader of the Al-Nusra Front told Reuters in May.
Last week, an Israeli teenager was killed by Syrian troops who shot at him across the border.
Syria later told Israel via a U.N. emissary that the its army troops had mistakenly identified a truck approaching the boy and his father as a rebel truck on the Syrian side of the border and fired an anti-tank missile on their location, Channel 10 reported.
Reuters last month noted that recent advances by Islamist militants in the Golan were “important not just because they expand rebel control close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the Jordanian border, but because President Bashar al-Assad's power base in Damascus lies just 40 miles to the north.”
Reuters also quoted Western intelligence officials who estimated that some 60 insurgent groups are operating in southern Syria.
(H/T: Times of Israel)