A few weeks ago, Syrian civilians broke into a UN peacekeeping post along the border with Israel.
The civilians came to steal supplies, but in Israel, the event – which would have been unheard of a year ago – was noted with extreme interest as another sign that President Bashar Assad was losing control over his country.
An even further sign is the increase in the number of land mines being dug up by Syrian civilians near the border and thrown into Israel. Since the beginning of the year, six mines have been thrown into the country, compared to two in 2011 and zero the year before.
All of this adds up to a dire assessment within the IDF Northern Command that Syria is on its way to becoming something of a “hybrid” state where Assad will continue to control some parts – particularly main metropolitan areas like Damascus and Aleppo – but will lose control over other parts like Hauran, an area in the southwest along the border with Israel.
For this reason, the IDF refrains from issuing straightforward predictions of when Assad will or might fall. Predictions like Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s, back in January, that Assad would fall “within weeks,” are dismissed as nonsense.
Instead, the IDF is focused on preparing for scenarios it believes could evolve over the coming months, with an eye on the increase in the presence of global jihad elements in Syria and their potential involvement in attacks against Israel.
The change for the IDF is significant.
One place where that change is apparent is along a section of the border in the central Golan Heights where for years the IDF had invested in creating obstacles to prevent Syrian tanks from crossing into the country.
Today, the military is creating obstacles aimed at preventing people from infiltrating the border, as part of an understanding that the new threat is one of guerrillas and terrorism.
This is a lesson from what has happened along one of the country’s other active fronts today – the Sinai, which also used to be under the control of a regime (Hosni Mubarak) but today is a lawless territory where terrorists appear to run free.
The downing of a Turkish fighter jet last week is an example of how complicated the situation is today in Syria.
On the one hand, the air defense systems are on high alert and at a relatively high professional level – one of the reasons the West is wary of military intervention. On the other hand, the military is facing massive defections, lack of intelligence and command-and-control problems in its battle against rebel forces.
According to Israeli estimates, around 12,000 soldiers and officers have already defected. While the number is significant, it is not enough to have a major impact on a military of nearly 400,000.
The military is also overworked. Officers in the Syrian army, for example, used to work 9-to-5 jobs with a two-hour break in the middle of the day. Nowadays, they are in operations around the clock, and many have not been home for several months.
The fighting between rebels and the military is not yet directly along the border with Israel, but it is not far, reaching places like Deraa – a mere 11 km. from Israel.
For the time being, the IDF does not believe that Assad’s forces will do something along the border to attack Israel. On the contrary – all indications are that Assad wants to keep the border quiet out of fear that a distraction will prevent him from quelling the rebels.
This was evident on Nakba Day in May, when Syrian military forces were seen stopping protesters from approaching the border. If Assad wanted to get Israel involved, he would have let them through. Another example occurred a few weeks ago, when he replaced a number of commanders along the border. Discipline was apparently down in some of the units, and new officers were brought in to tighten things up.