Syrian rebels capture sole border crossing in Golan Heights

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BEIRUT — Syrian rebels Wednesday claimed control of the only border crossing between Syria and Israel, extending a series of gains in the strategically sensitive Golan Heights in recent days.

The capture of the crossing point is of greater symbolic than strategic significance for the rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, given the decades-old state of war that has prevailed between Israel and Syria. It does, however, consolidate rebel control over Syria’s border with Israel and potentially puts extremists on Israel’s doorstep. Al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra was among the rebel groups that participated in the battle for the crossing, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Others included more-moderate groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, notably battalions belonging to the southern branch of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, which has received U.S. support.

The radical Islamic State group, which has stirred worldwide alarm with its sweep across northern Syria and Iraq in recent months, was not involved in the takeover of the crossing. The group is not known to have a presence in the Golan area.

An Israeli army officer was lightly wounded by stray mortar fire that struck the Israeli side of the cease-fire line dividing Israel and Syria, which have observed a tenuous truce since Israel seized most of the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In response to the incoming fire, the Israeli military hit two Syrian army positions, the Israeli army said in a statement.

Stray rounds have caused damage and injuries in Israel on several occasions since the rebellion against Assad erupted three years ago. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said the spillover of violence is of greater concern to Israel than the changed occupancy of the border crossing.

“This is not a conflict that we are involved in,” Col. Lerner said of the Syria fighting. “It is an internal conflict. However, we need to be prepared, and we are not willing to have the fighting spill over into Israel.”

Jonathan Spyer, a senior researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and an expert on Syria and Lebanon, said rebel units had been trying for months to dislodge the Syrian army from the border crossing. The crossing is used mostly by personnel with the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, who have been monitoring the cease-fire line for 47 years.

As a precaution, Israel on Wednesday sealed off the area on its side of the border to prevent tourists and residents from getting too close to the fighting. In June, an Israeli teenager was killed in a cross-border attack as he traveled with his father in the Golan Heights.

syria - israel - Middle East - Palestinian territories - Bashar Assad - Syria government - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Syrian armed forces - Gaza Strip


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