More than ever, attention is moving toward the occupied Golan Heights, especially after the Syrian army’s announcement yesterday [May 21] that it targeted an Israeli military vehicle that entered the liberated side of the Golan Heights and fired toward Syrian locations.
The Golan front is not unrelated to the recent Israeli raids near Damascus at the beginning of May. Those events are raising questions about whether the military situation could return to what it was during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. But the new factor today is the presence of Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups and battalions, which are complicating things. Amid all this, the inhabitants of the Golan Heights’ occupied portion are worried that things may explode at any moment.
Golan Heights … continual crises
The town of Quneitra in the Golan Heights is very important because it lies no more than 50 km [31 miles] from Damascus. The Golan Heights has a surface area of 1,860 square kilometers[718 square miles]. It is bounded by Lake Tiberias and the Hula Valley in the Galilee, al-Rikad Valley in the north until the Yarmouk River’s outlet at the Syrian-Jordanian border with occupied Palestine; and Mount Hermon, the highest mountain peak in Syria and the water source for most neighboring areas.
After Israel’s occupation of the area and its departure in the Yom Kippur War, the Golan got split between a liberated part, which includes Quneitra, and an occupied part, which includes the villages of Majdal Shams, Ain al-Tineh, Masada, Buqaata and Ghajar. The estimated number of Syrians in the occupied part is about 40,000. They live with about 30 Israeli settlements that were built after 1967.
During the 1967 war, more than 200,000 Syrians left the Golan Heights for Damascus and its environs. Some of them returned to their villages, such as Khan Arnaba, Jbata al-Khashab and Bir Ajam. Quneitra remained destroyed but a new city was built nearby and considered as the provincial capital. It includes state institutions and government buildings.
The Syrian government maintained its relationship with the occupied side by importing apples with the help of the Red Cross. Inhabitants in the occupied part used to organize regular trips to Damascus. Every year, many students move from the occupied part to Damascus to complete their university education. The main event in the Golan is when, every year, students gather on the liberated part and shout across a valley — which came to be dubbed the “shouting valley” — to their parents who have gathered on the occupied part. Both sides communicate by means of loudspeakers in a surreal scene.
The Golan, between the regime and the opposition
What is happening in the region has changed the rules of the conflict between the two parties (the Syrian army and the armed opposition). Both agree on the Golan Heights’ importance because it is close to Damascus, its countryside and Houran. The Syrian regime controls Quneitra and the neighboring towns — including Khan Arnaba, Baath City, al-Jabba, Umm Batina and Sasa in addition to the Damascus-Quneitra road, which passes through Mezze Airport, the Maadamiya groves, Sahnaya, Artouz, the Khan Sheikh Palestinian refugee camp, Qatna, Drousha and Quneitra. There are daily clashes on that road because the opposition is trying to cut the supply line to the government center in Quneitra.
The armed opposition controls a number of villages — including Jbata al-Khashab, Beit Jann, Bir Ajam and Rafid — which are all adjacent to the border. It should be noted that media activists in the region have denied the rumors about Israel opening up the border for residents of villages where there are clashes.
In contrast, there is talk about waves of displacement from the clash sites, where inhabitants left for safer areas such as Quneitra, villages on the slopes of Mount Hermon or for mountainous villages like Kfrahour and Beit Saber.
This displacement has reduced the FSA’s death toll and eased its movement. While the FSA was able to unite under the Syrian Military Council, thus making their operations more organized, they still lack medium and heavy weapons.
As the opposition fighters quickly grab and hold new positions, the Syrian army tries to recover them by means of land incursions or by bombarding them with rockets or mortars from military positions in Quneitra. The regime sometimes succeeds in recovering those positions. The Syrian regime doesn’t use aircraft in the Golan area, which is helping the FSA move more freely.
The role played by the Israeli occupation in the region is controversial. The Syrian army announced that an Israeli military vehicle crossed from the occupied area to the liberated area and headed toward the village of Bir Ajam and fired two missiles on Syrian army sites in Zubaydiah, before the Syrian army destroyed the vehicle.
That was perhaps the most prominent incident recently, after several reports talked of fire exchanges between the Syrian and Israeli armies. Fox News reported that Israeli special forces are present on the liberated side of the Golan.
After the Israeli raids near Damascus at the beginning of May, the Popular Front for Change and Liberation announced the formation of popular resistance brigades to liberate the Golan Heights.
All this suggests that the Golan Heights may soon become a warfront between the Syrian army and the resistance brigades on the one hand and the Israeli army on the other. And between the two is the armed opposition, whose only goal is to overthrow the regime.
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly