IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Israel eyes Syria warily from border buffer zone in Golan Heights

Israeli soldiers from the paratroopers brigade take part in a drill in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near the border with Syria on Sept. 9.
Israeli soldiers from the paratroopers brigade take part in a drill in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near the border with Syria on Sept. 9.Baz Ratner / Reuters file

GOLAN HEIGHTS, Israel – From a closed military zone a few yards inside Israel's border with Syria, the sound of shelling and plumes of smoke are clear -- evidence of the nearby civil war.

Soldiers from a special reconnaissance unit of the Israeli Defense Force look through binoculars from one of their observation points. Syrian government soldiers manning their own lookout post look right back. One gets up from his chair, goes inside and reappears with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

The town across the border is Quneitra, controlled by President Bashar Assad's regime -- for the moment. Villages farther east are in the hands of rebels, and Israelis have observed their columns of weapons and supplies.

Suddenly there is a volley of fire. "Get down guys," the soldiers say. Some dive for cover in a concrete trench.

A sergeant explains that bombs and bullets from the Syrian war regularly land inside Israeli territory. The shooting may have been warning shots, or maybe just some stray bullets from a gunfight on the outskirts of Quneitra. 

On this most tense of borders, Israel is on alert.  

"We have brought here much better forces, much stronger forces," said Gal Hirsch, a reservist general in this highly restricted area. "So we are very well prepared for any situation that develops along this border."

Just a few hundred yards from the trench is a village, Allone Habashan, settled on the fertile ground of the Golan Heights, land which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The international community did not recognize the move and considers the Golan Heights to be occupied territory. A United Nations force is now stationed in a buffer zone between the two countries.

Yiske Dekel balanced her two-year-old daughter, Emuna on her knee. She was trying to stop her from putting a bottle top in her mouth, but it seemed like the least of her worries. 

"Last year we found an unexploded shell stuck between two houses in this neighborhood. The army came to blow it up. We hear shooting all the time," Dekel said. Such are the worries of a young mother who lives a few yards from a war zone. "Something could come down right now as we're talking and that would be it. But you can't live your life in fear."

So how scared should Israelis be? And does the proposed U.S.-Russian deal on Assad's chemical weapons make Israel more secure? 

Even for pessimists in Israel, it's difficult not to see at least some good news in the framework agreement. 

Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, spent decades building up a chemical weapons arsenal in response to what he saw as the nuclear threat from Israel. Nerve agents, and the technology which delivers them, are the very ugly crown jewels in the Assad defense establishment, and they have threatened Israel for years. 

That Bashar Assad now seems prepared to give them up is a huge concession. A recent history of Middle Eastern dictators does not reveal many surrendering weapons of mass destruction -- or even letting U.N. inspectors into their countries. Things didn't turn out well for Iraq's Saddam Hussein or Libya's Mummar Gadhafi even after he gave his weapons up.

But the question is what action will be taken if Assad doesn't stick to the timetable. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came to Israel immediately after he struck the deal with his Russian counterpart. He was scheduled to talk about the peace process with the Palestinians but he will no doubt have given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some assurances that the U.S. will take action if Assad starts to play games. 

For some old soldiers though, President Barack Obama's reluctance to strike Syria in the immediate aftermath of the sarin attack in Damascus is a sign of America's disengagement from the region. 

"If the president talks about red lines and then doesn't act on them, then it's bad news for us," said former IDF brigade commander Kobi Marom. "If the U.S. is not prepared to take action in this part of the world, then the conclusion has to be that we have to take care of ourselves. Israel will do it alone."

Several times this year, according to reports that the government will not confirm, Israel has been doing exactly that. The Israeli air force is alleged to have destroyed truck-loads of weaponry sent by the Assad regime to its allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah. 

A large section of the Israeli intelligence services has been dedicated to knowing what's going on in Syria for years, and they'll be watching very closely over the next 12 months to make sure Assad's chemical weapons are being moved in the right direction. If they think they're not, then America will be the first to know. 

And if America doesn't take action, then Israel might.