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Middle East and North Africa

Syrian civil war spills over into the Golan Heights

Syria’s civil war is spilling into international territory. Rather than remaining in the now-expected war zones of Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs, the conflict that has been raging over two years is gradually spreading into the Golan Heights, the internationally recognized Syrian territory—bordered by Lebanon to the north, Syria to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the west—that has been governed by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967.

The Israeli Defense Forces are confirming that Syrian rebels fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have taken the Quneitra crossing, which lies along the ceasefire line with Israel, and is a crucial border area between the Golan Heights and greater Syria.

Although the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has officially declared itself against the Assad regime, many Israeli leaders are rethinking their position on the matter with so many potentially hostile rebels invading Israeli-occupied territory and growing ever closer.

The unspoken worry, for Israel, is that although the Israeli central government—like many other democracies around the world—finds the authoritarian Assad regime distasteful, the Syrian opposition forces are largely Sunni Muslim and sometimes radicalized, a similar demographic to groups like Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, groups fighting against Israel in the Palestinian territories. To have potentially radicalized Sunni forces within Israeli-occupied territories puts many Israeli officials on the defensive.

The tangled web of foreign forces in occupied areas is reminiscent of how the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s aggressive actions from the south of Lebanon sparked the Lebanese Civil War, pulling Syria and Israel with Lebanon into a pan-Levantine regional conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, an experience Israel no doubt has no desire to replicate.

The spillover conflict from the Syrian Civil War, combined with the sudden withdrawal of the Austrian section of the United Nations peacekeeping force and Israeli and Syrian violations of the ceasefire, has prompted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to request authorization from the U.N. Security Council to increase the peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights by over 35 percent, from 900 troops to 1250.

Regardless of Ban’s ability to increase the number of troops on the ground, U.N. spokesperson Josephine Guerrero has said that other U.N. peacekeepers, mainly from India and the Philippines, will remain.

The ceasefire these forces are protecting between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights has been in place since 1974, although the legitimate administration of the territory is still in question.

It is possible that the increased instability in the area, as well as the withdrawal of Austria’s 377 peacekeeping soldiers, will cause Israel to increase their own military presence in the Golan Heights if Ban is not able to raise the number of security forces on the ground. Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz maintained after Austria’s withdrawal, “We cannot rest our national security on the presence of international forces.”

Increased Israeli military presence, in turn, could destabilize the area even further, encouraging residents in the area who are opposed to Israeli occupation, as many of the Syrian Muslims and Druze are, to rebel.

It is unclear exactly what specific defensive actions, if any, Netanyahu and his government will take if the Syrian civil war advances any further into Israeli-occupied territory.

By Laura Gates

Source: New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, CNN

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