MOUNT AVITAL MILITARY BASE — Mount Avital is the last piece of the Golan Heights controlled by Israel before you hit al-Nusra territory in Syria. Yes, in this valley, flags with the Star of David flap in the wind just a few dozen meters away from those bearing the black jihadist symbols.
The slopes of this mountain used to represent the quiet borders of the armistice agreed upon after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 — but they have since changed, thanks to the jihadists allied with the Islamic State (ISIS) headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The border checkpoint is close to the ruins of Quneitra where the al-Nusra Front has a logistics base and where, last spring, the Israeli military pushed out Bashar al-Assad's soldiers.
"Three hundred men came," remembers Eyal Zisser, an Arab scholar at the University of Tel Aviv, "And the [Assad] regime didn't have the strength nor the will to confront them."
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been monitoring the Syrian civil war from the 1,204-meter-high perch of their mountainside base, headed by Ofek Buchris, the brigadier general of the Bashan Division, created to deal with the consequences of the dissolution of the regime in Damascus.
With a Tommy Gun slung around his shoulders, a kippah on his head and a mix of Arab and Anglo-Saxon humor, Buchris describes what happened in the Syrian part of Golan with interactive maps showing the changes that have taken place. "Fifteen months ago on the other side there were two Syrian divisions — the 90th and the 61st," he explains.
Now, where the regime's forces used to be, is the al-Nusra front, controlling 85% of the 69 kilometer-long border. "But," says Buchris, "the biggest dangers for us come from the remaining 15%."
The 15% is around Hadar, a small town in the north of the Golan Heights, from where Buchris says his troops have been attacked 15 times since March. This is the only border area still in the hands of the regime and the general notes that they're dealing with "Syrians who got their weapons from Hezbollah and Iran, and who are trained by Iranian instructors."
Grad rockets have been launched, explosives hidden along the border and "other offensive actions" have been used against Israel. "We have had four injuries, but the damage could have been much worse," says Buchris, showing a video clip in which three al-Nusra Front men can be seen cutting the barbed wire border and coming into Israel to place 20 kilograms of explosives.
Mount Avidal — Photo: Scarlight
Analysis of these devices traced them to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel suspects that Tehran is behind it, committed to creating a "new fighting organization" against Israel.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Hasrallah is "turning a blind eye to what is happening," says General Buchris. Echoing his analysis is Major General Fayez al-Doueiri of the Jordanian army, who recently spoke to TV channel Al Hadath confirming that "in Syria, Iran is creating a sister organization to Hezbollah, bringing together Shia volunteers from Iraq and Afghanistan thanks to the forces commanded by [Iranian] General Qasem Soleimani."
Tehran's intent is to support Assad's army, which has lost more than 200,000 men — both to death and desertions — since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. The consequences of this support are apparent in the small town of Hader.
It goes without saying that this is adding a new element to the military tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran. "Soleimani is the real director of Assad's campaign," says the IDF general. Israel's suspicion is that he is laying the foundations to double the threat in the Golan Heights — from the southern border shared with Lebanon.
Regarding the other 85% of the border, Buchris says that so far the al-Nusra Front "hasn't even fired a bullet because it's in their interests to have a safe side in the fight against Assad. But they have already said, in an unequivocal manner, that when the regime is ousted, they'll attack Israel."
Sending a message
This is a conflict that could begin tomorrow, in a week, a year, ten years, or never, but "everyone needs to be ready at all times," so the IDF performs simulated attack exercises from guerrilla groups of up to 200 militants throwing mortars with the intent to do serious damage.
"When al-Nusra attacks us, they'll be aiming to hit us really hard," says Buchris.
So, every movement beyond the border is monitored by electronic equipment, satellites and even lookout posts from the IDF's Golan operations center at Mount Avital. Among the videos obtained, there are some that show al-Nusra collecting Israeli and Syrian mines placed during and after the Yom Kippur War. In the stills you can see a truck full of mines.
"As soon as we realized what they were doing we sent them a clear message and now they don't do it anymore," says Buchris, without specifying what this clear message was.
"If there's one thing that we know how to do is make ourselves understood by those in this region," assures Buchris, carefully choosing his words about Assad's forces. "Since the beginning of the [Syrian] civil war, in more than a hundred occasions, we were hit by shots but it was always a mistake," says the general, and therefore, Israel did not react.
The only exception was the MiGs shot down over the Golan Heights skies in late September. "They had come over the border and we're talking about something dangerous here — we had to hit it," says Buchris.
But that was an exception. Judging from what we see now, the danger in Golan isn't Assad, but the pro-Iranian guerrillas who are waiting for the first direct conflict with the Sunni jihadists.