The Golan Heights has remained relatively calm since the start of the war in Gaza, with occasional rocket and shell attacks. However, it appears to be the scene of a major movement of Iran-aligned fighters, signaling a desire to threaten Israel from a new front.
More than 700 “elite troops,” made up of members of the Syrian Resistance for the Liberation of the Golan Heights and Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi militiamen, were sent in small groups in October to Quneitra, south of Damascus, and towards Daraa. They now control the areas surrounding this occupied territory, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The members of this “elite force,” trained by Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reportedly take their orders from the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria.
Although Hezbollah and the Syrian authorities are allies, these fighters were mobilized without any coordination with the military leaders of the Assad regime, the London-based NGO noted.
Little information is available about the armed group, apart from the fact that the Syrian Resistance for the Liberation of the Golan Heights was created by Hezbollah in 2013, at the same time the movement officially acknowledged its participation in the war in Syria, alongside government forces.
It aims to launch operations against Israel from the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War and were annexed in 1981, against international law.
SOHR presented Samir Kantar, a figure close to Hezbollah, who spent 28 years in an Israeli prison, as the “leader of the Syrian Resistance for the liberation of the Golan” after he was killed in a strike south-east of Damascus in 2015.
Shortly before, the US had placed Kantar on its terror list, claiming that he “played an operational role, with the assistance of Iran and Syria, in building up Hezbollah’s terrorist infrastructure in the Golan Heights.”
There have been exchanges of fire in recent days between the Israeli army and fighters from these elite forces positioned under Hezbollah’s command in the Golan Heights.
Several Israeli artillery shells fell near the agricultural areas of Beit Jinn in the Damascus countryside, adjacent to the occupied Shebaa farms, SOHR reported on Sunday —the result of responses to Hezbollah rockets fired from Syria.
This heightened tension came after two IRGC members, presented as military advisers in Syria, were killed in an Israeli attack near Damascus on Saturday, according to official Iranian media.
“The Syrian Resistance for the Liberation of the Golan received the necessary training and is ready to intervene at any time alongside the resistance (Hezbollah) which fights Israel,” said Faisal Abdel Sater, a political analyst close to Hezbollah.
Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza on Oct.7, the almost daily bombardments between the Israeli army and Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese border claimed more than 100 lives on the Lebanese side, including 83 fighters from Hezbollah militia.
Having become a regional player operating in several territories since its involvement in the war in Syria, Hezbollah sees the area bordering the Golan Heights as an opportunity to form a second front, in addition to southern Lebanon, from which it would be able to conduct operations against Israel.
The recent deployment of these militiamen near the Golan highlights dissension in the approach of the Iran-aligned groups and Syria in the current sequence, even though the two parties are trying to strike some balance.
The former seems tempted to use the Syrian front to put pressure on Tel Aviv, while the latter shows a desire to keep out of the hostilities.
After Israel bombed Damascus and Aleppo airports for the second time on Oct.22, the chairman of the Syrian Parliament’s Arab and Foreign Affairs Committee, Boutros Morgana, ruled out the possibility of the country’s involvement in a war against Israel.
“I think the situation is perhaps too complicated for Syria to take military action against Israel at the moment,” he told Arab World Press, adding that Damascus “reserves the right to respond to any aggressive action against it.”
Ever since the days of Hafez al-Assad and his dogma of “strategic parity,” advocating to wait until it has the same military capabilities as Israel, the freezing of the Golan front has always suited Syria. It has enabled it to position itself as a prominent player in the anti-Israeli front, and therefore in the Palestinian cause, while avoiding committing its troops to a conflict that was bound to be lost in advance.
This policy still seems to be in force today: the military leaders of the Assad’s regime have given strict orders to their soldiers deployed in this region, forbidding them to fire toward the occupied Syrian Golan, SOHR reported.
As early as Oct.7, press reports indicated that Israel warned Assad against any attempt to get involved in the conflict.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, one of the objectives of the Iran-led “axis of resistance” is to draw the Israeli army and its resources toward northern Israel, and to settle them there to divert them from Gaza, and more generally, to prevent Israel from concentrating all its forces against Gaza.
Since the start of the Hamas-Israel war, Tehran and its auxiliaries carried out drone, rocket and missile attacks against Israeli and US forces in northern Israel, Iraq and Syria. However, the scope of these attacks has remained “limited,” according to researcher Ali Alfoneh.
Hezbollah also made it clear that it was excluding Syria from active resistance. “We cannot ask more of Syria (...) which has been suffering a global war for 12 years,” Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech on Nov. 11.
The attacks by Iran’s auxiliaries “primarily have served as symbolic declarations of solidarity with Hamas and were perhaps also designed to complicate Israeli and U.S. calculations rather than trigger a regional war,” Alfoneh wrote in an article in the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Should a regional war break out, it will be more by accident than by design,” he added.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.