Spillover puts stability along Israel-Syria border at risk

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The stability along the Israel- Syria border on the Golan Heights was again threatened on Thursday as the Syrian government troops entered the demilitarized zone between the two countries during a battle with the rebels.

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Herve Ladsous, chief of UN's peacekeeping operations, told the UN Security Council that Syrian tanks had entered the demilitarized area at Quneitra border post and that the Israeli army had threatened to respond.

The Israel-Syria border has been almost completely quiet since the 1973 war. But as the Syrian crisis continues and Damascus redeployed some of its border forces to other areas, the number of incidents along the border has increased.

While the incidents have limited to errant grenade shells landing in Israel and small-scale fire against Israeli army patrols, Thursday's development showed that the Syrian crisis has slowly and steadily begun to threaten the calm of the border region.


Dr. Jonathan Spyer, of the Interdisciplinary-Center in Herzliya, told Xinhua on Sunday that it is likely that the longer the Syrian crisis drags on, the more the border stability will be threatened.

"These events are likely to be repeated because of, the concern is that, both sides in the civil war and their intentions with regard to Israel," Spyer said.

He added that with the south of Syria becoming contested and the partial collapse of the UN peacekeeping force, the more either the administration troops or the rebels come closer to direct contact with Israel, the greater the possibility there is for friction.

Dr. Ephraim Kam, of Tel Aviv University, said "as long as there is fighting close to the border, there is always the danger that Israel will have to [reply] to something that happened inside Israel by mistake or not by mistake."

The threats to the stability of the border are not limited to the possibility of an event along the border itself.

While Israel has stayed clear of any form of involvement in the fight between the rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it has stated that it will not allow Syria to be used as a route for Iran to send advanced weapons to Hezbollah. And Israel has on at least three occasions in the last six months conducted airstrikes inside Syria to prevent this from happening.

So far, the Syrian administration has not attempted to retaliate, but after the last attack in May, both Assad and Hezbollah threatened to attack the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights if Israel were to conducted additional airstrikes.

Spyer also said that, in addition, there is a threat that al- Qaida affiliated groups among the Syrian rebels, such as the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, would use its newfound proximity to Israel to launch attacks against Israeli targets.


Following the fighting on Thursday, Austria announced that it would withdraw its 380-man contingent of the 1,100-man UN peacekeeping force, formally known as the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

Spyer said, while "obviously it's regrettable" that Austria has decided to withdraw its troops, the UNDOF will not collapse. However, "If we were to see the complete disappearance of the UNDOF, this would of course increase the possibility of contact and tension between elements on the Syrian side and Israeli forces, " he said.

Kam said the departure of the Austrian peacekeepers might be significant for Israel. But he pointed out that during its 40 years of operations until the Syrian crisis, the force has had very little to do, except for handling formal complaints from either Israel or Syrian; and that the main reason that the border has been quiet was due to the interest of Israel and Syria of keeping it quiet and not due to the presence of the UNDOF.

After Austria's withdrawal, Moscow offered to replace the departing peacekeepers with Russian soldiers.

The UN, who initially accepted the offer, later changed its position after it was discovered that in the initial documents establishing the UNDOF, there was an agreement between Israel and Syria stipulating that no permanent member of the UN Security Council could send troops to the UNDOF.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said while Moscow was well aware of the limitations, there would be a theoretical possibility to amend the document with the cooperation of the parties concerned.

However, Kam said, due to the Russian support for Assad, accepting the Russian offer might not be the best option for Israel.

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