Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Israelis find an unlikely ally in Assad as Syrian civil war moves closer to home

Many expect crossborder spillover from fighting between dictator’s regime and Nusra Front

Ben Lynfield
Tuesday 23 September 2014 15:16 BST

Over the last month, as Syria’s civil war has moved to Israel’s doorstep and fire has even spilled across the border, a frontier look-out point has become a magnet for Israelis curious about the fighting or simply anxious to have a taste of a war that for a change isn’t being waged by their own country.

For some, coming to watch the Syria fighting was part of an afternoon outing to buy goat-cheese pastries in nearby Druse Arab villages. One man said he travelled 250 miles to see the war, bringing his children. He was disappointed to find that there wasn’t much action, just the sound of an explosion in the distance every now and then.

Some at the lookout think that Israel can remain a spectator and that the fighting between the army of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels including the al-Qaeda branch, the Nusra Front, is not an Israeli matter. “They have no reason to start with us. They hate each other more than they hate us,” one young man from the Kidmat Zvi settlement said after peering through binoculars at the UN base in Quneitra, on the border. The base is losing its peacekeepers as a Filipino contingent that bravely fought back after Nusra surrounded it three weeks ago pulled out over the weekend due to security concerns. A Fijian contingent was held hostage by Nusra for two weeks, beginning in late August, before being released.

The Golan Heights used to be the easiest peacekeeping job in the world, with Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad and then his son Bashar, the current President, making sure – despite their Arab nationalist ideology and Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights – that for 40 years there were no cross-border infiltrations into Israel.

Benny Shnezik, who works at the Israel Electric Company, was dressed casually for watching a war in a swimsuit and flip-flops. “I am not afraid. If they start with us, Israel is very strong. We can give them back,” he said.

Despite the on-holiday attitude at the lookout, Israeli analysts say the changes at the border – particularly al-Nusra’s arrival – pose a major challenge. “It will not take much effort for them to send a suicide bomber against soldiers or farmers and it is just a matter of time before they do so,” Major Aviv Oreg, former head of the al-Qaeda desk for Israeli army intelligence, said. In Major Oreg’s view, the Nusra Front will turn to attacking Israeli targets as part of its competition for popularity with Isis, which controls a large part of eastern Syria. “Even small-scale attacks will give Nusra legitimacy in the wider Muslim world,” Major Oreg said. In Major Oreg’s view, the best scenario for Israel would be if President Assad’s army regains control of the border, at least for the short term. “Bashar Assad is a great enemy of us and an ally of Hezbollah but he was able to keep the border stabilised for a long time.” Major Oreg said.

As the civil war approaches its fourth year, President Assad seems to be an increasingly popular man in the Golan because the choice is between him and al-Qaeda. “Israel has to help him if you ask me,” Mr Shnezik said.

“They kept the border quiet for 40 years. I would rather have Assad on the border,” said Giora Chepelinski, who runs a chocolate factory at Kibbutz Ein Zivan, which is within walking distance from the lookout.

A Druse Arab construction worker, who declined to give his name, said that those Druse in the Golan who were supporting the rebels at the beginning of the war are now backing President Assad. “If Nusra wins, where will the Druse go?” he asked. He insisted that supporting Assad’s forces, in which his relatives in Syria serve, is the moral thing to do. “The Syrian army did not decapitate anyone from Nusra,” he said. Four days ago, the construction worker was picking apples in an orchard near the border when he heard a Syrian plane and looked around for where it would strike. Soon he saw white smoke rising from Jibitha, a village controlled by Nusra. “I was happy because I am sure there are terrorists there.”

Tourists have been cancelling holidays at the kibbutz because of the fighting nearby. Two weeks ago, a soldier was lightly wounded north of Kibbutz Ein Zivan by stray fire from Syria. “It’s our most difficult September in recent years. Our problem isn’t real, it’s bad press,” Mr Chepelinski said, his remarks interrupted by the sound of an explosion in the distance. The fighting has also damaged the Druse Golan economy, which depends heavily on sales of apples to Syria. This year the border is closed.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in