The Syrian army’s 90th Brigade’s loss of its forward Golan position at Tel Al-Ahmar to rebel forces including al Qaeda’s Nusra Front was Bashar Assad’s most humiliating military setback in the past year. Situated on the Israeli border, it is the key to the Golan town of Quneitra which faces Israeli army positions on the other side. To recover this strategic position, Assad has mustered a combined Syrian-Hizballah-Iraqi Shiite expeditionary force, the recipe for most of his victories against rebel forces in the past year.
DEBKAfile military sources also disclose that for the capture of Tel Al-Ahmar, the rebels for the first time deployed units the size of battalions, drawing 350 fighters from ten local militias from southern Syria and elements of al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra. Among them too were local Syrian fighters trained by American instructors at a camp deep in the desert of southern Jordan. This was the trainees’ first taste of combat inside Syria.
Our military sources add that the battle for the Golan key point was the first rebel operations that was professionally planned, organized and executed. They used heavy 120mm mortars to pound their target into submission.
Iraqi Shiite fighters are pouring into Syria in a swelling stream to join Assad’s expeditionary force for the Golan. Most are believed to be members of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq under the command of Abu Mahdi Mohandes, the deputy of the Iranian Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
In his speech on Friday April 4, Hassan Nasrallah said that henceforth his Hizballah fighters would strike Israel from their positions on the Syrian Golan.
This confronts Damascus with a difficulty. The Syrian army is legally constrained from deploying tanks and armored vehicles for operations against the rebels under the Syrian-Israeli 1974 ceasefire agreement which ended the war of attrition following the Yom Kippur war. This agreement restored 5 percent of the plateau to Syrian control provided it was incorporated in a demilitarized zone to the east and policed by UN peacekeepers.
But on Tuesday evening, April 8, the Syrian air force bombarded the rebels holding Tel al-Ahmar, with Iranian-made explosives in breach of that agreement. The response to that violation poses Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz with some major decisions:
1. Should the Syrian Army be allowed to drive the rebels from Tel al-Ahmar?
2. To achieve this, Syrian forces would have to use heavy weaponry, a further violation of the Syrian ceasefire agreement with Israel. How many violations can the IDF tolerate?
3. Should Israel permit hostile foreign troops, such as the Lebanese Hizballah and the Iraqi Shiites,to take up positions on its northern border?
4. How will the IDF deal with the almost inevitably spillover of battles, explosions and bombardments taking place in this tiny area into Israel?
5. Will Israel continue to provide medical care for wounded rebels in the battle for Tel al-Ahmar? If so, Israeli medical teams and hospitals may find they are treating jihadis associated with Al Qaeda.
Israelis living in the north and trippers to favorite resorts there had better not expect the coming eight-day Passover festival to pass quietly.