Armageddon in Syria?

The Syrian city and province of Da’ara lie hard on the border between Jordan and Syria near the picturesque Yarmouk river gorge. It is an area of dramatic beauty and rugged terrain, difficult for both merchants and armies to cross. Da’ara no doubt emerged, like many ancient sites of importance (such as Megiddo, putative site of Armageddon), because its location allowed the inhabitants to control access into rich lands, making it a profitable and strategically valuable position. Indeed, the British-Arab General John Glubb  Pasha called Da’ara the Therompylae of Syria. It still is today, which is why an Iranian-led army is now trying to bash its way through Da’ara, and from there, into Jordan and Israel. 

When it comes to Iran much international diplomacy focuses on that country’s nuclear ambitions. Those concerns are very real, and for Israel, potentially existential. But Iran is not just after securing a nuclear arsenal. It is assiduously seeking to extend its conventional power throughout the region, from Yemen to Iraq. If Iranian-supported forces get through Da’ara, the mullahs will have advanced their ambitions one more step.     

Today Da’ara is held by elements of what is left of the so-called Free Syrian Army. Presumably, these are the very people United States supports in the Syrian civil war, except that President Obama is busy forging a strategic alliance with Iran, which very much wants to see Da’ara fall. 

The revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashir Assad began in Da’ara. This gives the area even more importance, since its fall would give a psychological boost to Assad and his masters in Tehran. President Obama set a “red line” for Assad, then he didn’t, then he decided Assad had to go, and now he evidently doesn’t because he’s decided to ally the United States with Assad and Iran against ISIS. So now the rebels in Da’ara are being left to fend for themselves against a combined force of Assad’s Army, Hizb’allah, other Shia mercenaries, and their Iranian advisors. So far, the rebels are holding, though it is unlikely that they can do so for much longer.

While Assad’s goal may be to smash the Da’ara rebels, Iranian aims are much broader. In seizing Da’ara, Iran would control access into southern Syria, thus limiting the ability of American special forces, such as they are, to operate there, and effectively limit Jordanian involvement in the campaign against ISIS. Iran might not be opposed to Jordanian strikes on ISIS, which is in theory a common enemy, but would no doubt relish the ability to gain further leverage over American-led allied operations. And ultimately, Iranian/Syrian forces in Da’ara will threaten the moderate Sunni regime in Amman, which is almost certainly a long-term Iranian objective. 

Even more critical to the Iranians is access to the Golan Heights. Iran has sought to install a Hizb’allah presence on the Golan Heights for some time now. Hizb’allah already poses a significant threat to Israel from Lebanon, but its political position in that country creates problems, as combat with Israel inevitably costs Lebanon dearly, a price which the Lebanese people are increasingly unwilling to pay. On the other hand, the Syrian Golan, which is a sparsely populated, heavily-fortified military zone, would be a near perfect launching point for Hizb’allah attacks into Israel. 

Free Syrian forces in the northern Golan have clashed repeatedly with Assad’s forces around the mostly destroyed regional capital of Quneitra, which was the focus of fierce fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel has maintained a strong presence in the northern Golan since that time, making this area a tough one for Iranian/Hizb’allah encroachment. Israel annihilated a small joint Hizb’allah-Iranian foray into the northern Golan in January with an airstrike. Hizb’allah responded shortly afterward with a limited attack into Israel from Lebanon. The offensive into Da’ara is an Iranian move against the southern Golan following the check in the north.     

The southern Golan offers opportunities to the Iranians that the northern Golan does not. It would give Iran a presence at the meeting point of Syria, Israel, and Jordan.  It would also place the Iranians astride the Yarmouk River, which is the largest tributary of the Jordan, the vital water resource for Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian-administered areas of the West Bank.  Plus, the rugged terrain would provide opportunities for Iranian/Hizb’allah mischief. 

In the early 1980s, I was a kibbutz volunteer on the southern Golan at Afik, before it was a vacation spot. Afik is only a few miles from the Ruqqad wadi (itself a tributary of the Yarmouk) and the Syrian border. Militarily, this area has been a backwater compared to the rest of the Golan, the gorge providing a natural anti-tank barrier. If anything, the area resembles southern Lebanon, where Hizb’allah has demonstrated it excels at a quasi-conventional warfare of anti-tank missile attacks, commando strikes and indirect rocket fire. The area still harbors gazelle and wild boar, which makes identifying intrusions all the more difficult. During my time there, an IDF field intelligence unit (which a cousin at one point commanded) used then state-of-the-art ground surveillance radars (mounted in typical make-do Israeli fashion on World War II era M3 half-tracks) to identify threats. Today, surveillance technology has much improved, but so has the threat. Iran would like nothing better than to turn the southern Golan and its thriving nearby towns and kibbutzim into a new Lebanon-like front against Israel.

Iran’s moves to control the Syrian Golan are sometimes presented as an attempt to deter Israeli action against its nuclear program by providing additional launching points for Hizb’allah missiles. While to some extent this is probably true, it is also way too exculpatory. So far, despite more than a decade of intense speculation, Israel has not attacked Iran. Iranian deterrence (though Hizb’allah in Lebanon, the threat of terrorism, its own long-range missile forces, and diplomatic maneuvering) has so far worked adequately. The idea that a few more Hizb’allah rockets on the Golan would make a great deal of difference is quite a stretch.  But why should Iran mind when its goals are described, even by its critics, in such a passive manner?

In reality, Iran is building a conventional threat against Israel that is immediate and real.  An Israeli air campaign against the joint Syrian/Iranian/Hizb’allah offensive at Da’ara would likely frustrate the effort. That would also likely necessitate air strikes against Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, and perhaps dogfights against Syrian aircraft, all of which are under the effective command/control of Iran, if not manned by Iranian crews. But President Obama has effectively allied the United States with Syria and Iran in the campaign (such as it is) against ISIS. As part of that devil’s bargain, Syrian antiaircraft positions and aircraft cannot be molested by American flyers. 

Were Israel to attack at Da’ara, Obama would no doubt see it as a direct assault on his own objectives in the area, thus making Israel a direct adversary of the United States, which is probably something he would relish.  Thus, at the Da’ara gap is Israel presented with a true Hobson’s choice, to either attack with all the attendant risks, or to do nothing and let Iran into the Golan. Perhaps Armageddon begins at Da’ara, not Megiddo.