A symphony of destruction on the Golan

Majdal Shams, a Druse town in the Golan on the border with Syria.

Source: Middle East Forum, by SETH FRANTZMAN, May 19, 2018

“It was intense,” recalls Thierry Laskart, a Golan tour guide and member of the local security response team.

On Wednesday night, his family went to bed in their pretty house in Elrom, a few kilometers from the border with Syria. After midnight, he got a message via the Home Front Command’s warning app alerting him to take his kids to the family’s protected room. Somewhere in Syria, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps member had fired rockets at Israel. Sirens sounded throughout the Golan Heights. What happens next he describes as more than an hour of Israeli retaliation against targets in Syria. Like a symphony of destruction, Israel pounded a long list of Iranian and Syrian regime targets in an operation dubbed House of Cards. “Whoever fired that BM-21 triggered a strong retaliation by Israel and gave the IDF the pretext to destroy every Iranian position between here and Damascus,” Laskart says. The shooting, air strikes and outgoing ordinance from the Israeli side went on and on, the largest strikes on Syria since the 1973 war.

Over dinner on Shabbat, Laskart and his family seemed content. The Iranian threat that had been steadily creeping towards Israel over the last several years has been seriously blunted and the Revolutionary Guards are licking their wounds. Quiet has returned to the Golan.

Despite the clashes on May 10, the Golan Regional Council called on tourists to return to the area for the weekend. The message was that things were safe. The area had seen cancellations because of the air strikes and concerns over retaliation. Would the weekend bring the people back?

THE BAZZARA café at Wassat junction, a few minutes’ drive from Elrom, is a simple affair. It has two brown picnic tables outside and an assortment of wooden chairs placed around low tables on the ground. A tire swing sits idle. Inside the little café on Friday afternoon, a family prepares for a birthday celebration. A man in camo-colored trousers and a woman with a central-European accent discuss the day’s events. Later, some kids arrive and play with squirt guns.

A bottle of bubbly is opened and passed around. The man in the camouflage pants kindles a fire. Soldiers come and go, buying goodies to munch at their base. Two Filipino workers stop by. No one from outside the Golan visits. The clouds of war have kept them away.

“If we get rain, you’ll get a flood,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned Syria after the May 10 air strikes. The aftermath of the evisceration of Iran’s infrastructure brought threats and conciliatory remarks from Jerusalem. Liberman said Israel had struck “nearly” all the Iranian sites in Syria. He also signaled to the Syrian regime that it should pressure Iran to pack up and go home. At the Herzliya Conference at the IDC that day, he stressed that Israel is not looking to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

“We have no interest in escalating the situation,” he said, adding, “Israel has no conflict with the Iranian people.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative to the Quds Force, Ali Shirazi, threatened Israel after the air strikes. He claimed that Tehran could destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa if Israel did not “avoid stupid measures.”

The war of words between Jerusalem and Tehran comes in the context of years in which the two countries have circled each other, like boxers, waiting for each one to act first. In some ways this conflict has long and deep roots, because the Iranian Islamic revolutionary regime that came to power in 1979 has always harshly opposed the Jewish state. Since that year, the regime has held an annual Quds Day parade on the last Friday of Ramadan to support Palestinians and boast about destroying Israel.

Iran has a long history of seeking ways to attack Israel. In the 1980s, Iranian support helped Hezbollah target Israel in Lebanon, and in the 1990s Iranian agents were allegedly behind two massive attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina. Iran sponsored attacks on Israeli diplomats in India and Thailand in 2012. The country also sought to create a nuclear weapons program, one that was ostensibly shelved in the lead-up to signing the “Iran deal” with the US and other countries in 2015. Since the Syrian conflict broke out, Iran has sought a new strategy in its tiptoe towards the Jewish state.

In April, Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon warned that Iran had recruited and trained 80,000 Shi’ite militiamen in Syria. The hard core of these fighters had come after the Syrian civil war began to bolster the regime of Bashar Assad. They came in 2013- 2015 to defend Shi’ite shrines and to help Assad’s forces, which were stretched thin.

Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani went to Syria to see what Assad needed. Called the “shadow commander” pulling the strings from behind the curtain, Soleimani had 500 IRGC advisers in Syria by December 2015. By May 2016 the numbers had swelled and 700 of these religious zealot recruits had met their end in Syria. Iran began to search elsewhere, paying a pittance to poor Shi’ites from Afghanistan and Pakistan to join the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades.

ON THE Golan Heights, communities like Elrom were concerned about the chaos unfolding across the border. So long as Iran’s fighters were focused on killing Syrian rebels, they couldn’t focus on bringing the fight to Israel.

Laskart recalls that for the first few years of the war, the Syrian rebels were able to liberate areas on the Syrian side and became Israel’s new neighbors. But who were these neighbors? Some of them were just rebel fighters who wanted freedom. But some became affiliated with extremist groups such as the Nusra Front, a version of al-Qaida in Syria, and some joined Islamic State.

“It used to be Sunni Jihadist extremists, even though the Shi’ites would be the same. They don’t take the threat as seriously when it comes to the Shia, as opposed to previously with the chance of Sunni extremist attacks,” he recalls.

In January 2015, Hezbollah commander Jihad Mughniyeh showed up in Quneitra, just a few hundred meters from Israelis who routinely drive along the Golan border. His father, Imad, had been a senior Hezbollah commander who died in a car bombing in Damascus in 2008.

Imad was a key link in Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah and he was praised by Soleimani. Senior Iranian officials such as Ali Akbar Velayati attended his funeral. His son was just getting his feet wet in Syria when his car and a second vehicle were hit by an air strike in January 2015. Three other Hezbollah members and two IRGC members died in the air strike. Iran vowed revenge against Israel, but the message was clear to Tehran and Hezbollah: keep their fighters away from the border.

Former Israel Air Force commander Amir Eshel later said that Israel struck Iranian and Syrian targets, including convoys destined for Hezbollah, 100 times over five years from 2012 to 2017.

On Israel’s side of the Golan, the delicate balance required numerous layers of care to keep the Syrian conflict from spilling over into the Jewish state. Not only did Israel have to keep up an armed deterrent against terrorist groups operating on the other side that might threaten Israel, but it had to balance that with keeping quiet on the Israeli side. That meant not taking in large numbers of refugees that might arrive at the border. However, Israel began to provide quiet medical care to those who needed assistance. By 2017, according to a report in The Independent, more than 3,000 patients had been treated.

This was not without controversy. For Golan Druse who have co-religionists across the border, any treatment for Syrian rebels was problematic. That is because the Druse village of Khader on the Syrian side of the border was under Assad’s control, and the rebels sometimes threatened it.

In June 2015, a mob of men from Majdal Shams, a Druse town on the Israeli side, pulled a wounded Syrian from an ambulance and beat him to death. In November 2017, when rebels again threatened Khader, the IDF vowed that it would prevent the village from falling to the rebels.

AS SNOW melted on the Hermon in early 2018, the situation in Syria changed again. In July 2017, the Syrian regime signed a cease-fire that covered rebel areas in southern Syria. The areas near the Golan were quiet, but the Iranian threat was growing.

With Russian backing, the Syrian regime had decimated the rebels and everywhere the regime gained, Iran gained as well. This growth in Iranian influence was called a “road to the sea” or a “Shi’ite crescent” – and it was creeping toward Israel.

In the fall of 2017, Israel began to warn that Iran was constructing bases in Syria. In December, an alleged Iranian base at El-Kiswah south of Damascus and 50 km. from the Golan border was hit by an air strike. In February, an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace near Beit She’an and Israel carried out air strikes in Syria. An F-16 was shot down. Tensions grew.

Laskart and others looked on and wondered when the waiting game would turn into a hot conflict. “There was the air raid reported in April against Iranian presence in Syria; the tension never stops. We have known since 2014 that the Iranians have been pushing their limit. They took advantage of the previous friendly administration in Washington.”

In mid-April, Israel warned the Russians that supplying Syria with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles would be a major threat. Iran warned that it would retaliate against Israel. Israeli jets were pulled from a drill in Alaska to come home. Liberman issued several warnings, including that an attack on Tel Aviv would result in an attack on Iran, that Israel would prevent the S-300 from being operational in Syria and would prevent Iran from building forward bases in the country.

On April 30, Iranian personnel were allegedly killed in an air strike that foreign media blamed on Israel. Amos Yadlin of the Institute for National Security Studies warned of a “heating of the conflict between Iran and Israel in Syria.”

The Israeli security cabinet met on April 30 and Assad met the head of the Iranian Shura Council for Foreign Policy, noting, “Israel’s time of attacking and fleeing has ended; your strikes will be met with strikes.”

Adding to the tensions, on May 8, US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran deal. The deal was widely detested in Israel and under its guise of moderation, Iran had continued to threaten Israel and the region through its militias and ballistic missiles.

“The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen,” Trump said. Hours later, the IDF opened bomb shelters on the Golan.

PREPARING FOR what might become a crisis, Safed Mayor Ilan Shohat’s office issued a security update.

“In response to the IDF’s decision to open bomb shelters and protected spaces in the Golan Heights, Mayor Shohat has announced that, despite the fact that we did not receive an explicit directive, the Safed Municipality Hotline has decided to open the public shelters in a methodical and calm manner in order to provide residents with a sense of security.”

He wished the residents a quiet night and said further assessments would be made in the morning.

Safed had been on the front line of the 2006 Lebanon War because it is only 10 kilometers from the Lebanese border. This puts Safed well within rocket range – and it did in fact suffer significant missile damage in that war. It is also only 60 kilometers from the Syrian border.

Dave Bender, an English-speaking volunteer, was helping the municipality convey its message to the city’s English-speaking community. On Friday, after the clashes with Iran, he was preparing Shabbat dinner with his wife at their pleasant home there. Surrounded by books and the warm smells of home cooking, he told The Jerusalem Post that in recent days he had helped the local public relations director for the municipality translate messages.

“I ask him for quotes to put the English community more at ease. There is a large, active closed Facebook group that I use to pass on accurate, timely, nonalarmist information.”

Bender was born in New York and has lived in Israel for four decades. For the past half a decade he has lived in Safed, not far from the old Ottoman-era fortress at the center of the city. The 2006 war still looms over the city, he says.

“I was here in 2006 as a reporter. I saw the damage and know people who were wounded. Most people [today] are calm and want practical information.”

Information today comes in new forms than it did a decade ago. People download apps on their phone, such as the one from the Home Front. Instructions on what to do in wartime, where to go and distances to shelters are available online, but social media have also created problems. In case of war, people should be careful not to post the locations that rockets fell and details that might aid the enemy.

Shohat says that Safed has worked had to prepare.

“We have learned a lot since 2006. We renovated the shelters; it’s totally different today.” The mayor, who has been in office since 2010, has sought to take a proactive approach to what might come next.

“The city is taking it seriously; I was really impressed. There is a brand new ops center; and there were 100 people from every level [at a meeting on May 8], from Home Front Command, the IDF, the police, social services, education, National Insurance [Institute] – and we went through a one-day dry run,” Bender says.

However, not everything is in order. Some residents complained that their shelters are locked or have not been cleaned. Bender notes that people should be willing to take initiative themselves and that the city won’t be able to do everything immediately. Sitting in his living room, sipping a warm coffee, I wondered where his shelter was in case the sirens went off.

It’s across the alley in the school, I learned. It takes about 30 seconds between when the sirens sound and rockets might impact. That’s not enough time to get to the school, even though it’s just across the narrow street.

UP ON the Golan, Laskart was also keeping his app on his phone handy.

“The siren is not as reliable as the app,” he says. On May 10, when the alerts sounded just after midnight, his wife picked up their baby and Laskart grabbed his three sons and took them to the protected room. After 10 minutes, he went out to meet his response team.

What he describes is an hour and a half of Israel striking back. None of the rockets fired from Syria made it into the Golan, they were either intercepted or fell short. But Israel’s response was firm and clear. The IDF says that it struck at Iranian intelligence sites, logistics headquarters, military compounds, munitions storage, intelligence systems maintained by the Quds Force and observation and military posts.

Syrian rebels said that they watched from across the Golan as tank and artillery fire targeted regime positions on Tel Ahmar, a strategic hill near Khader. Some of the rebels also reported seeing flashes and explosions beyond Mount Dov in Lebanon where Hezbollah has positions. By 1:45 a.m. it was all over and residents of the Golan were told they could come out of their shelters. They should stay in close proximity, the radio said, in case of the next round – but there was no next round that night.

At the Laskarts on Friday, Thierry was busy making steaks that his wife had purchased in the nearby Druse village. The large slabs of meat relaxed in salt and freshly ground pepper. Mashed potatoes were in the oven and Thierry put together a delectable dressing for a salad. Ukrianian brandy filled our cups. It was hard to imagine that the Iranians who had threatened the area for so long were now reconsidering their plans with years of infrastructure and investment in ruins.

“What is interesting and impressive is that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu was in Moscow on Wednesday before the May 10 events,” says Laskart. “He got a green light, basically. He has been there around eight times, more than he was in Washington. So I would say it’s not clear exactly the deal between [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Netanyahu, but it is impressive. The Russians may be unhappy with the Iranian presence as well,” he theorizes.

In the morning, Majdal Shams was just waking up. Down by the border security fence, an IDF patrol in a Humvee had parked their vehicle in the lee of a large rock. The soldiers were keeping watch. Druse were going about getting ready for the day. The Golan is filled with apple and cherry orchards and men and women were setting up tables to sell the latest goodies, including pita and olive oil, on the road.

Outside the town one can see some of the old bunkers from the 1967 to 1973 period, and beyond them, old Syrian army bases dot the Golan. On the way to Kiryat Shmona in the valley below is Nimrod castle, an impressive and beautiful fort built in the 13th century, crowning a promontory. It is a reminder that the conflict with Iran today forms part of a long history for the region.

Down by Mount Dov near the Lebanese border, with Hezbollah in Lebanon just beyond in the hill, rain had started to drizzle on Saturday, May 11. Some wild boar were grazing. One by one, a whole family of them came up to the security fence that surrounded Mount Dov. They peered out and then walked away. They sensed a kind of threat and went back into the high grass.

Today Iran’s personnel in Syria have gone back into the high grass – but they will be back.