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Syrian conflict sends ripples across a long-calm frontier with Israel

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MOUNT BEN-TAL, Golan Heights — Tourists who visit this old military observation point in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights gaze down on the lush flatlands of southern Syria, and they are told that they are looking at what has been Israel’s most serene frontier for four decades.

But the bloody tumult in Syrian cities beyond the horizon is sending forceful ripples through mountain villages on this side and into nearby Israeli military barracks and government halls three hours away in Jerusalem.

Israeli officials, who for months were reluctant to discuss the fate of a hostile Syrian regime with which they have a long-held truce, are increasingly calling for its ouster. The same is true in the towns perched on a snow-streaked mountain visible from here, where most residents are members of the Druze religious sect who identify themselves as Syrian and where the conflict is carving deep new divisions, pitting cousin against cousin.

For more than a year, Israel has warily watched the seismic political shifts in the Arab world, believing that the rise of Islamism is unlikely to herald changes favorable to the Jewish state. The fall of Syria, some Israeli observers say, could transform the Golan Heights — which Israel has occupied since 1967 — from placid disputed territory into a battlefield, bringing with it a possible stream of refugees, or it could make Syria a base for terrorist organizations bent on attacking Israel.

Here along the boundary, where the Israeli military scrutinizes subtle shifts on the other side and Druze villagers gather snippets of information from relatives in Syria via Skype and Facebook, there is general agreement that Bashar al-Assad’s government will fight for many more months, spilling more blood and leaving the fate of the uprising uncertain.

“The way I see things today is that Assad will not collapse before the nation is destroyed,” said Waheeb Ayub, a businessman in the Druze village of Majdal Shams who is an outspoken supporter of the Syrian opposition.

Months ago, Israeli military officials stationed along the fenced frontier said, the Assad regime appeared to be cracking. Syrians on the other side were moving more freely and showing “unprecedented” defiance toward police, one military official said, and there were increased thefts from outposts of United Nations peacekeepers, who have patrolled the Israel-Syria cease-fire line since 1974.

But as the Syrian army concentrated assaults in key cities in recent months, Syrian police erected more checkpoints in the south, and the signs of slipping control faded, Israeli military officials said. The officials said they now see little chance of a refugee exodus and no signs that the small Druze population inside Syria is supporting the rebels.

“They’re minorities, and their existence relies on their ties with the regime,” one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the military. “If we see them changing loyalty . . . we’ll know that the end is probably near for the Assad regime. So far we haven’t.”

Conjectures on post-Assad era

Not long ago, many Israeli officials eschewed commenting on the Assad regime, because they feared both an unknown alternative and accusations that they had orchestrated the uprising. But the revolution has become so bloody that Israeli officials now believe Assad cannot possibly regain control, and they fear that a messy collapse could allow Syria’s weapons arsenals to fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia and political party.

More fighting could generate sectarian splintering, and Syrian opposition forces will resent the international community for not halting the government crackdown, said an Israeli government analyst who was not authorized to speak publicly.

“At the end of the day, you will get a population that is conservative and fully antagonized against” its Arab neighbors and the West, the analyst said. “This is very fertile ground for radicalism.”

But Israel increasingly sees opportunity in the Syria uprising. Though it is unclear what would emerge in his place, Assad’s fall would remove a regime that sought nuclear weapons and stockpiled chemical arms, and it would enfeeble Syria’s patron Iran, said Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s inner security cabinet.

“It’s in the world’s interest that this despot will be removed,” Steinitz said in an interview. If that happens, he said, “the axis of evil of North Korea, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon might suffer a serious blow.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, an early critic of the Syrian crackdown, told foreign reporters Monday that “whatever follows Assad’s bloodstained regime will be greeted with Israel’s extended hand for peace.”

Dueling sentiments

In the hilly hamlet of Majdal Shams, a growing number of people are willing to condemn the crackdown, if hesitantly. For years, the main division among the 20,000 Druze in the occupied Golan Heights was between those who remained loyal to Syria and the less than 10 percent who took Israeli citizenship.

In the past year, that rift has drifted to the background as Assad supporters and opponents have staged dueling demonstrations, residents said. Ayub, who said local Druze religious leaders loyal to the Syrian regime issued a decree ordering people to avoid him, called the new fissures “almost hostile.” Members of both sides say they are the majority.

Many Druze, who adhere to a mostly secret faith that is an offshoot of Islam, export apples to Syria; hundreds of Golan residents study in Syrian universities; and Druze pilgrims visit religious sites there. Criticizing Assad, a member of the Shiite-affiliated minority Alawite sect, could endanger relatives in Syria, residents here said.

“People believe that a Sunni-majority regime would take revenge on minorities, and the Druze will suffer,” said We’am Amasha, 30, an opposition supporter who lives in the Golan village of Buq’ata.

In downtown Majdal Shams, across from a wall painted with pro-Assad graffiti, Hassan Fakher al-Deen sat in his butcher shop and denounced the uprising as a conspiracy led by Western countries that view Assad as anti-Israel and Arab nations that want to install Islamists.

“If, God forbid, the regime is changed, the Golan will not go back to Syria,” said Fakher al-Deen, 64, adding that the opposition is not what it claims to be. “A large part of them take orders from Israel.”

Among the town’s prominent opposition supporters is the butcher’s cousin, human rights activist Salman Fakher al-Deen, but they keep things civil. However, Hassan Fakher al-Deen deemed the ideas of Ayub — who believes Syria’s Islamists would lead a pluralistic government — as “satanic.”

Amasha, a student and carpenter, said regime supporters recently set up speakers outside his house and blasted pro-Assad songs. Two weeks ago, he said, a gang of pro-Assad youths beat his father and then struck him with a car.

“There is a fear here in the Golan, which is even greater than in Syria,” about expressing opposition to Assad, he said.

Amasha said he has refused pleas from relatives in Syria to retract his criticism of Assad. Nevertheless, he is afraid for Syria’s future, particularly as rebels use weapons.

“If arms win, that will be the nature of the future regime,” he said.

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Majdal Shams contributed to this report.

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