“I remember the Syrian city of Kuneitra as if I had been born there,” said Avigdor “Yanush” Ben-Gal, former Northern Command head. Ben-Gal commanded the 7th Armored Brigade that fought in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and was the last Israeli soldier to leave the Syrian enclave in the Golan Heights after the cease-fire arrangements [October 24 1973]. “I climbed up to the top of the highest house in Kuneitra with another officer in order to say my farewell to Syria,” he recalls, “and suddenly I heard shouts of soldiers who were telling us to come down. The house is booby-trapped, they shouted. We’re going to blow it up. I told them, let me say my farewells to Syria peacefully. I looked all around me, to the Golan Heights and to Syria, climbed down from the house and joined the last jeep that left Kuneitra.”
Four former Northern Command chiefs — Ben-Gal, Uri Orr, Yossi Peled and Amiram Levin — have been closely following the recent events in Syria. They are well acquainted with the zone, and all have memories of the Golan Heights. Uri Orr clearly recalls former Syrian Defense Minister General Hassan Turkmani who was killed last week; Turkmani had commanded an armored division in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. “I fought him and defeated him. He succeeded in breaking through our lines until Nafach [principal IDF army base on the Golan Heights], but ultimately, we won.” Orr continues to visit the Golan Heights to lecture to high-echelon army men, years after he left the zone. “When they mention the name of a place in the area, I know where it is.” Peled has not forgotten Kuneitra that was “a destroyed city after the war,” while Ben-Gal says, “I know the Golan Heights like the back of my hand.”
Israel’s Syrian border, which was long considered the quietest of its borders, has been heating up lately and approaching the boiling point. The twilight of Assad’s regime and the battles being waged throughout Syria, have turned on the warning lights in the Israeli General Staff. There is less talk about terrorist infiltration; instead, everyone’s gaze is fixed on the enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons and advanced weapons systems, thought to be tie-breakers if they reach Nasrallah’s hands and the Hezbollah terrorist organization.
Recently, Syria threatened to use its chemical weapons if it is attacked, but in the same breath quickly qualified its statement. “We will only use chemical weapons against foreign aggression and not toward Syrian citizens,” said Jihad Makdissi, Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman. Israel’s President Shimon Peres expressed concern regarding a possible transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah, an act that would endanger Israel and the West, and clearly expressed the threat that Israel would not hesitate to attack if the weapons were moved [from Assad’s storage facilities]. American President Barack Obama also warned Assad against using his chemical weapons.
A Clear and Present Danger
“I am concerned that Israel faces a very complex problem,” says Ben-Gal. “If I were head of the Northern Command today, I would keep intelligence on top of what happens to Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. I would make assessments of the situation regarding who controls the stockpiles. Today, all the chemical weapons are still in the hands of the Syrian army; the rebels have not yet taken control of the arsenal. As far as we are concerned, chemical weapons pose a severe threat to the State of Israel. Imagine what the Second Lebanon War would have looked like if the Hezbollah had the option to launch chemical weapons on rockets against Israel. This kind of weapon in the hands of an irrational Muslim enemy sharing a border with the State of Israel, that is no joke. It’s as if the Iranians already had an atom bomb. Intelligence tracking will let us know that is happening to the weapons and we will respond, if necessary, either by air or land attack, or a combination of both.”
When will it be considered ‘necessary’?
“We will attack if the chemical weapons will no longer be under the control of the Syrian government, if weapons convoys start making their way to Lebanon. If these weapons reach Hezbollah or Lebanon, we will be facing a volcano. The United States and Jordan are also concerned exactly as we are, and do not want President Assad’s chemical weapons to reach Hezbollah or al-Qaeda hands. I hope that we will succeed in forestalling the use of chemical weapons before someone else in the region attacks with this weapon.”
Uri Orr explains that the Syrian army has always had chemical weapons. “Chemical weapons is the easier non-conventional weapon to develop. If the supervision over this type of weapon is not tight, there is a chance that Hezbollah will gain control over it. But I wouldn’t be too concerned because Hezbollah won’t fight against Israel, given what’s going on in Syria now. They have their own agenda.”
“We have to ensure that the chemical weapons don’t reach the wrong hands,” says Yossi Peled. “We have no intentions of living with the threat of chemical weapons, and we simply will not tolerate such a situation,” he says firmly.
Amiram Levin is less troubled. “While there is always concern about chemical weapons, Hezbollah has no desire for these kinds of weapons. It isn’t worthwhile for them to deal with chemical weapons, certainly not to fire these kinds of weapons against Israel. We are not Hezbollah’s enemy, their goal is to assist the Shiites in Lebanon and not fight against Israel. We made a mistake when we raised the subject of Assad’s chemical weapons to the [world’s] agenda. Our statements regarding chemical weapons only served to emphasize Assad’s advantage over the rebels. With these kinds of issues, it’s always best to sit still and keep our mouths closed.”
Can we really keep quiet when, in addition to the Iranian threat, the threat of chemical weapons from Syria joins the fray?
Levin says, “We can’t dance at all the weddings. We have to decide what is best for us: a strong Syria with all types of weapons, or a weakened Syria that will be ruled in the future by the Sunnis, who are less connected to Iran than Assad and the Alawites. I think that Iran does not endanger Israel. The Iranian threat has been blown out of proportion. If Iran goes nuclear, it will endanger the Gulf States, Qatar, Saudi, Kuwait, the countries dependent on oil from the Emirates — but not Israel.”
Peled is careful to distinguish between the Iranian front and the Syria front. “Iran and Syria are two separate issues,” he explains. “When the Syrian regime was stable, there was an axis that included Syria, Hezbollah and Iran. Today, Iran and Syria are two separate issues. If Syria becomes a no-man’s land this will not work to our favor but it can weaken the tripartite axis of evil. In any case we need to deal with two different problems, Syria and Iran.”
Ben-Gal feels that the State of Israel is facing a priority problem. “We are always focused on Iran, and suddenly a threat emerges from Syria that we had not taken into consideration. In this equation, there are two unknown variables. We cannot live with the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, and we also cannot live with the threat of chemical weapons in Hezbollah hands. We will have to respond according to [future] developments.”
What is more dangerous to us at this stage?
“At the moment Iran is more dangerous, but if the Assad regime collapses and we lose control over his chemical weapons, that will become our number-one problem, though it is also possible that both problems will exist simultaneously. The State of Israel is now in an extremely sensitive, complex situation the likes of which we have not known for many years. Iran is going nuclear, Syria is collapsing, and the future of Jordan is unclear. We are in the midst of a very thick, complex fog of war without a simple solution.”
Is there a solution?
“I hope the United States and NATO will understand this complexity that is regional in nature. I expect the Saudis to convene the Arab League to decide to make military or political order in Syria. An acute problem is emerging, and I don’t understand why the Emirate states don’t take charge over what is happening.”
It is not our problem
All four men have had previous extensive experience in the Golan Heights. Ben-Gal fought in the Yom Kippur War as commander of the 7th Armored Brigade and was Head of Northern Command from 1977-1981, then commander of Ga’ash Formation [the 36th Armor Division] in the Golan Heights during the First Lebanon War. In an election assembly in 1981, then-prime minister Menachem Begin publicly called on Hafez Assad to beware. “Yanush and Raful are ready for you” he warned, [Raful or Rafael Eitan was the Chief of Staff during this war], thus transforming Ben-Gal into the legendary warrior of the Israel’s northern region. [Colonel] Orr commanded the armored Brigade (reserves) that fought in the Yom Kippur War  on the Golan Heights. Later on he was commander of the 7th Armored Brigade and then commander of the Ga’ash Formation, and Head of Northern Command between 1983-1986. Peled fought in the Yom Kippur War on the Golan Heights as commander of anarmored brigade (reserves) and was Head of the Northern Command between 1986-1991. Levin was commander of the General Headquarters reconnaissance platoon [Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s elite intelligence and counter-terrorism commando unit] that conquered the peak of Mount Hermon (together with the Alpine Unit) in April 1974. Between 1994-1998, Levin served Head of the Northern Command, Commander of the Northern Corps, and Major-General of the Northern command.
Due to the long years these men spent as heads of the Northern Command and in charge of fighting on the Golan Heights, they do not get overly excited about the battles held recently in the Syrian section of the Golan Heights. In March, eight soldiers and seven deserters from Assad’s army were killed in battles about 2 kilometers from the border with Israel (in the area of Kuneitra). [Recently] battles were waged in the Jubata Al Khashab village, about a kilometer from the border and one of the mortar shells that were fired toward the village landed in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria. Ben-Gal says that he “does not get very excited about the gunfire in the Kuneitra district. Let the United Nations take care of that, it’s not our problem. True, gunfire is getting closer to us but not premeditated. During the Yom Kippur War the Golan was almost empty while today there are numerous towns and villages, and they are also fighting Assad. In response, the army is trying to cleanse the areas of the rebels. It is possible that a shell will fall into Israeli territory but that shouldn’t make us panic, they have no desire to direct their fire at us.” Peled is a lot less sanguine. “We don’t know what will happen in the Golan Heights; it may become like the Sinai peninsula, and its pastoral tranquility may be disrupted. That’s not such a far-flung scenario; if everything in Syria will fall apart, the Golan Heights may become like Sinai because Syria is not a homogeneous state.”
Are you concerned about the Syrian shooting taking place on the border with Israel?
“Its significance, as far as we are concerned, is that we must be very, very vigilant, not allow ourselves to be taken by surprise but also not to involve ourselves. We cannot refuse to help Syrian refugees who will approach the Israeli border, but it is best that we do nothing."
Levin hopes that “we will have enough brains to restrain ourselves regarding what is happening on the border,” and Orr says that if he were Head of the Northern Command he would “reinforce the observation-posts. I would be alert, maybe there will be someone who’ll fire at us because he doesn’t realize who he’s shooting at, or some organization will try to take advantage of the situation, but in general we have no reason to worry. At the moment, no one is interested in heating up the border with Israel. The Alawite denomination is fighting for its life and has no interest in attacking Israel while the rebels have no interest or means for attacking Israel. Nobody in Syria is capable of fighting against us. In Jordan of the 1970s fierce internal battles were waged, and it did not affect the State of Israel. True, there was an incident a few days ago in one of the villages of the Syrian Golan Heights where bombs fell in the demilitarized zone. I was actually quite surprised by its quietness so far. There were no battles there between the rebels and Assad because the great turmoil is in Syria, and most of the communities in the Syria Golan Heights are small and without influence.”
The day after
The internal debates between the four generals also relate to the future of Assad’s regime. Ben-Gal would want to see Assad in power for many more years to come. “In principle, I would much prefer that Assad not fall. We lived in coexistence and quasi-peace even with his father, Hafez al-Assad, and with Bashar too. We don’t know what will happen if Assad will fall. Syria may turn into a second Lebanon. We don’t know how to live in peace with the Arab nations, but we know how to live in peace with Arab leaders, we know how to get along with them. Today the Arab world is raging, the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in some of the countries; these are not the rulers with whom we were able to make peace treaties and keep the peace between the countries.”
Do you feel that Assad has reached the end of his days?
“I am not sure that these are his last days, but there is no doubt that he is undergoing a very difficult period. His officers are Alawites and if they will continue to fight on his side, then his regime will not end so fast. He also has the political protection of the Chinese and Russians who evidently are giving him weapons. I anticipate another possible scenario that no one talks about, but in my opinion still exists on the table. The Ba’ath party representing the Alawite community may view the continued existence of Assad as President as a threat to the Alawite community. The higher echelons of the party may find an elegant solution to the problem and replace Assad with another, more moderate Ba’athist accepted by the Sunnis in Syria. I can’t think of such a person, but I assume that they are thinking of such a possibility in Syria.”
Peled says that a few months ago, he predicted that Assad’s fall would be a long process. “I spent many years in the North, I was the head of command for five years; only David Elazar was command head for such a long period [from 1964 to 1969]. I know the North well and yet I am ‘envious’ of experts who [think they] know what will happen in Syria. A year and a half ago, none of these experts expected the uprisings and even today no one can know where it leads. We have to be very attentive and alert, and avoid incautious statements. It is difficult to foretell developments in Syria because there are so many factors involved. Syria is not one political entity, it is ruled by the Alawite minority and has Kurds, Sunnis, an infinite number of groups that constitute the state. The Alawites are well aware of what their ‘brothers’ will do to them if they fall, that’s why they are fighting with all their strength. The rebels themselves are splintered, there is not one body opposite the regime. Europe is not rushing to intervene in Syria as it did in Libya. The West doesn't have economic interests in Syria as it had in Libya. I expect that Assad will fall, but it will not happen quickly.”