Israelis worry with Syrian al-Qaida on doorstep

Rebels pushing into the disputed Golan Heights could engage neighbor to the south

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

MEROM GOLAN, Golan Heights — For the first time in the Syr­ian civil war, al-Qaida fight­ers are hun­kered down on Is­rael’s door­step, and Is­rae­lis in the lush, hilly Golan Heights who have long con­sid­ered Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad their bit­ter foe are now wor­ried about some­thing more om­i­nous — that they could be­come the mil­i­tants’ next tar­get.

The push into the Golan by the Nusra Front, as al-Qaida’s branch in Syria is known, comes just two weeks af­ter Is­rael ended a 50-day war against Ha­mas on its south­ern bor­der with the Gaza Strip, giv­ing the con­flict-weary na­tion an­other cause for con­cern.

Is­rae­lis in the Golan — a long-dis­puted ter­ri­tory that marks the fron­tier be­tween the two coun­tries — have grown ac­cus­tomed to hear­ing the sound of dis­tant bat­tles be­tween ri­val forces in Syria’s civil war. But last week’s sei­zure of the stra­te­gic Qu­neitra bor­der cross­ing by a mix of reb­els — in­clud­ing the Nusra Front, fight­ers of the Western-backed Free Syr­ian Army and oth­ers — has cre­ated an un­prece­dented sit­u­a­tion that has brought the ex­trem­ists to within just a few yards of Is­raeli po­si­tions.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment is “not our cup of tea,” said Gabi Ku­niel, an Is­raeli who tends vine­yards re­cently dam­aged by mor­tar shells when the vi­o­lence spilled over to the Is­raeli-held side of the stra­te­gic Golan Heights. But “we pre­fer that the Syr­ian army con­trols this re­gion, and not a group of rad­i­cal al-Qaida Muslim peo­ple,” he said Wed­nes­day, sit­ting be­hind a con­crete struc­ture near his fields to stay out of the line of fire.

As he spoke, heavy ma­chine gun­fire could be heard in the dis­tance. Ear­lier, a plume of smoke rose from the Syr­ian side of the fron­tier fence.

For the past three years, Is­rae­lis in the Golan have had a rel­a­tively safe front seat view of the civil war as Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces bat­tled reb­els at­tempt­ing to wrest con­trol of the area. But now, the Nusra Front and the other reb­els move around in cam­ou­flaged trucks and on foot with guns slung over their shoul­ders, in some cases just 50 yards away from Is­raeli mil­i­tary out­posts and Is­raeli farm­ers’ fields. Some Is­rae­lis are convinced that it’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore the Islamic rad­i­cals set their sights on them.

Is­rael cap­tured the Golan, a pla­teau over­look­ing north­ern Is­rael, from Syria in the 1967 Mid­dle East war. It later an­nexed the area, a move that has never been rec­og­nized in­ter­na­tion­ally. Since the af­ter­math of the sub­se­quent 1973 war, U.N. mon­i­tors have helped to en­force a sta­ble truce, and the area has been tense but gen­er­ally quiet. That started to change when the Syr­ian up­ris­ing erupted in March 2011, and the fron­tier has grown more vol­a­tile as the con­flict has es­ca­lated into a com­plex and bloody civil war.

Is­rael has largely stayed on the Syr­ian war’s side­lines, qui­etly con­tent to see Mr. As­sad’s forces tied down by bat­tles with var­i­ous rebel groups try­ing to oust him. But Is­rael has oc­ca­sion­ally re­sponded to mor­tar fire that spilled over the bor­der, usu­ally un­in­ten­tion­ally, and is be­lieved to have car­ried out sev­eral air­strikes on weap­ons ship­ments thought to be bound for Hez­bol­lah mil­i­tants in Leb­a­non.

Fight­ing re­sumed near the bor­der Thurs­day, with one Syr­ian army pro­jec­tile hit­ting the north­ern Golan Heights, ap­par­ently by mis­take, the Is­raeli mil­i­tary said. The mil­i­tary said it re­turned fire at a Syr­ian army po­si­tion, hit­ting it. There were no im­me­di­ate re­ports of ca­su­al­ties.

syria - israel - Asia - Middle East - Southeast Asia - Al-Qaida - Bashar Assad - Syria government - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Syrian armed forces - Philippines - Jabhat al-Nusra


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here