Act III of the drama in the Golan is apparently now underway. Elements of the Syrian army’s Ninth Division and 121st Brigade, spearheaded by 50 T-72 tanks and supported by auxiliary infantry estimated at some 4,000 Iraqi Shi‘ite fighters and several hundred Hezbollah fighters, both under Iranian command, launched a major offensive in southern Syria on Sunday against Sunni Jihadi rebels. Though hampered by severe winter storms raising massive clouds of sand and dust which have grounded the Syrian air force, the Iranian-led contingent is engaged in its initial objective, cleaning out rebel-held positions in the southern town of Dara‘a; the rebels are generally being driven southwest of the town, toward the Israeli border. The Syrian government force is apparently headed toward the junction of the Syrian, Jordanian, and Israeli frontiers, east of Kinneret and northwest of Dara‘a. As of February 10th, Israeli surveillance assets report the force’s location some five kilometers southeast of Quneitra, taking up positions possibly preparatory to occupying the town (cf. map here).
The offensive has been dubbed “Operation ‘Ali Allahdadi,” after the Iranian general killed in the January 18 drone strike which began the current crisis. Five other Iranian officers and five senior Hezbollah commanders, including Jihad Mughniye, commander of Hezbollah forces in the Golan, and Ali al-Tabtabani, chief of all Hezbollah operations outside Lebanon, were killed in the same strike, as reported here. That strike was intended to buttress earlier warnings through diplomatic back-channels that Israel would not tolerate a Hezbollah presence in the Quneitra area.
The second round occurred on January 27th, when Hezbollah fighters, apparently acting on Iranian intelligence, ambushed an Israeli military patrol with Kornet anti-tank missiles in the Har Dov area, on Israel’s Golan frontier with Lebanon, destroying two soft-skinned vehicles, killing an Israeli major and a non-commissioned officer and wounding seven other soldiers, as reported initially here. This was followed by a rally in Beirut on January 30, also attended by ‘Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Iranian Majlis, in which Hassan Nasrallah, chief of Hezbollah, attempted to dictate terms to Israel concerning Hezbollah’s presence along the Syrian border in the northern Golan. Since that rally, senior Iranian sources have repeatedly stated that the “account with Israel” remains open, threatening to avenge Allahdadi’s death.
As the offensive got under way, on Monday February 9, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu‘allam issued a statement alleging that Israel was attempting to create a buffer zone in the northern Golan similar to the one which had previously existed in southern Lebanon, but would not succeed. In general, Syrian propaganda has been claiming that the Sunni Jihadi rebels are allied with and supported by Israel.
The same severe weather hampering the Syrian air force has also stood in the way of Israeli monitoring of events along the border, and is probably part of the reason that there has not yet been any Israeli response to the renewed fighting in Syria. That could change anytime the storms lift.