By Nicholas Blanford,Tom Coghlan and Sara Elizabeth Williams
Iran is close to putting its forces on Israel’s northeast border for the first time, as its allies crush rebel groups in the Golan Heights area of Syria.
The prospect of Iranian troops being posted on a frontier that has been calm for decades is causing alarm in Israel, and comes as international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions near a climax.
“Iran will be so close to the Israelis that it will no longer need long-range missiles to hit them,” said Abu Ali, a fighter with Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah organisation who has served multiple combat tours in Syria.
Israel deployed a new army division to the Golan Heights — which it has long occupied — in February last year, in anticipation of the threat from an enemy that many see as a bigger worry than either Isis or al-Qaeda.
Mortar fire and heavy machineguns are audible daily from the area as Hezbollah fights Syrian rebel forces, some of them aligned with al-Qaeda.
Israel assesses that the Syrian government army, apart from some artillery units, is largely exhausted. With its best divisions stationed around Damascus, the Assad regime is now leaving the fight in the south to Iran and its proxies.
A spokesman for the Syrian rebel forces in southern Syria, Major Issam el-Rayyes, said that 80 per cent of a 5,000-strong force attacking rebels around the Golan Heights were Iranian-backed militias, including Hezbollah, but also Shia fighters from Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
The offensive into the southern region of Daraa and Quneitra, bordering the Golan Heights, began in February. It is the first time that Iranian forces have operated openly in southern Syria.
“Iran is on the march, its proxies are taking territory,” an Israeli official said.
Abu Ali confirmed that Iranian troops were on the ground. “We are taking the area square by square until we reach the border with Israel.”
Fierce rebel resistance has slowed the progress of the Iranian-backed fighters. This week, the front line reached Kafr Shams, a town east of the Golan Heights.
From August to October last year, rebel groups gained territory along the southern half of the Golan Heights adjacent to the Israeli line, leaving only one village in the northern border area under Syrian government control.
Israel has offered medical assistance to more than a thousand wounded Syrian rebels and civilians, in a medical centre in the town of Zefat — but the Assad regime has accused Israel of going beyond humanitarian aid, and providing rebels with weapons, ammunition, communications equipment and tactical intelligence.
This pragmatic decision to be a “good neighbour” to Syrian rebels — even though some elements are affiliated to al-Qaeda — appears to be aimed at countering the more pressing threat from Iran.
Abu Ali said that, over the past year, a military infrastructure of bunkers and tunnels had been constructed in parts of the Golan Heights under the Assad regime control — echoing the facilities Hezbollah built in south Lebanon before a month-long war with Israel in 2006. “We are almost ready,” he said.
On January 18, Israeli drones targeted a convoy of vehicles near Quneitra, on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, killing an Iranian general and six Hezbollah fighters. The highly unusual attack was interpreted as a forceful message to Iran to stay away from the Golan Heights.
It appears to have fallen on deaf ears.