Thousands of Israelis flocked last week to the Golan Heights to enjoy the first major snowfall of the year, but not all of them returned home safe and sound. One family, eager to slide down a pristine white hillside, inadvertently entered a minefield and two of its children stepped on anti-personnel mines. A boy lost his foot and his sister sustained extensive shrapnel wounds.
The minefield, said IDF officers, was a relatively new one, part of the “Syrian barrier”, a chain of minefields and other obstacles designed to hamper a surprise Syrian attack. Such a move would aim at capturing at least part of the Golan and forcing Israel to the negotiating table, with Syria holding the upper hand.
This scenario is currently graded by Israeli intelligence as relatively low probability. Syria’s conventional military forces are run down and Israel would almost certainly detect such an attack in advance, supplying ample warning for a reinforcement of its units on the Golan.
But the main strategic threat Syria poses to Israel right now is not a conventional one. The Assad regime is the central link in the north-eastern axis confronting Israel, connecting Iran with its Lebanese proxy, Hizbollah.
As the possibility of severe international sanctions against Iran looms in response to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement this week that Iran will further enrich the uranium it has already stockpiled, the possibility of war also increases. That war may yet take the shape of an airborne attack, by Israel or the United States, on Iran’s nuclear installations. The tens of thousands of missiles supplied to Hizbollah over the last three-and-a-half years, hundreds of which are capable of reaching Tel-Aviv, are a more immediate threat, though, than a nuclear bomb.
Iran has complete control over Hizbollah’s missile operation and may choose to use it in advance. Israel may decide it has to take pre-emptive action against such a possibility. A major Hizbollah terror attack against an Israeli target somewhere in the world, avenging the killing of its military chief Imad Mughniyeh two years ago this week, could also lead to a deadly escalation in Lebanon.
The recent round of threats and counter-threats between Israel and Syria last week directly relates to this situation. Last week, Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned of the heightened possibility of conflict if negotiations with Syria are not entered into soon.
This reflects two concerns: that Syria is the main conduit through which Hizbollah is being supplied with missiles, and that in the event of a wider conflict, Syria, with a significant missile arsenal of its own, could also join in.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman followed up with a warning that as result of such a war, the Assad family would lose its hegemony.
But Mr Lieberman’s threat also reflects disagreement within the Israeli political and military leadership. The IDF high command has been of the opinion for a number of years now that Syria can be removed from its alliance with Iran and Hizbollah.
If that were the case, they argue, the price for driving a wedge through the axis — a return of the Golan Heights — would be worthwhile, despite the Golan’s strategic value.
Mr Lieberman represents the view that Israel should remain on the Golan while using its military superiority to deter Syria from coming to Hizbollah’s aid.
The Syrian response, that they are prepared both for talks and for war, has only supplied both sides of the argument in Israel with additional ammunition.