Conflicting reports on the status of the Syrian army on the Golan Heights has increased concern over instability on what was for nearly four decades Israel’s quietest frontier.
Large Israeli and Syrian forces have eyeballed each other across the border since the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and, despite tension that almost escalated into fighting on a number of occasions, a ceasefire reigned.
According to a number of reports emanating from Syria in recent weeks, the Syrian Army forces in the Golan, which numbered over 20,000, have greatly dwindled due to a combination of desertions and redeployments of some units to areas where the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad is trying to suppress the ongoing rebellion.
Some sources say that the two divisions, one close to the border and another on the foothills of the Golan ridge closer to Damascus, can no longer be regarded as viable fighting forces.
There have been some redeployments, but the two divisions remain largely intact, according to other sources.
And while Assad is not currently interested in an outbreak of fighting on the Golan, there has been a sharp upturn in the number of incidents in which Israeli patrols on the border have come under fire. In one such incident last week, the IDF took out a Syrian Army post with a guided missile after the Israeli side came under fire.
It was unclear whether the shooting from Syria was intentional or the result of ongoing skirmishes between troops loyal to the regime and mainly jihadist rebel groups.
Jihadists last month kidnapped 21 Filipino troops belonging to the United Nations Undof unit and, although they were released within three days, the peacekeepers have now dramatically scaled back their operations along the border.
“The Syrian army is large but for years it has been ill-prepared for war in Israel,” said a Syrian source with close connections to the Free Syrian Army. “The regime talked for all these years about the Israeli threat and the need to recapture the Golan Heights, but this was merely a justification for continuing conscription and for diverting a huge part of the country’s budget to the army. What they were actually doing was maintaining a main tool of internal repression.”
While some units, especially those made up of Allawite officers and soldiers, remain largely intact and loyal to Assad, the wider framework of the Syrian armed forces is in disarray.
The balance of power between the regime and the rebels is increasingly being determined by Assad’s foreign backers. The commander of Israel’s military intelligence, Major General Aviv Kochavi, estimated last month that as many as 50,000 Hizbollah soldiers are currently fighting for Assad, with the active assistance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
While some rebel sources believe the actual number of Shia Lebanese in Syria is not that high, they agree that the foreigners have become a main reason for Assad’s survival.
In addition to the Lebanese and Iranians, there are growing reports of Shia fighters coming to Assad’s aid