On Wednesday, Jan. 27 a large Hizballah force entered the southern Syrian town of Daraa, a critically dangerous event for Israel’s security. The way to the town, which lies near the Jordanian border and across from the Israeli Golan, was opened before Hizballah by none other than Russian forces. This was a blatant violation of President Vladimir Putin’s commitments to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jordanian King Abdullah not to permit Iranian and Iran-backed forces, such as Hizballah and Iraqi and Afghani Shiite militias, reach their borders in consequence of Russia’s military intervention in the Syria war.
Daraa is just 32 km from the southern Golan and 12 km from the Jordanian border. Hizballah forces in this town are therefore within easy striking distance from northern Israeli and Jordan.
What happened Wednesday was that a sizeable Hizballah contingent made it into Daraa, the day after a Syrian unit under the command of Russian officers captured the town of Sheikh Maskin, cutting off rebel forces east of Daraa from their comrades to the west.
Control of Sheikh Maskin is the key to the crossroads leading to Damascus in the north, the Druze Mountain town of es-Suwaida in the east, and Quneitra on Golan opposite Israel’s northern defenses.
The battle for Sheikh Maskin was the first in the Syrian conflict to be directly fought under Russian command. Its fall sparked accounts of Russian officers commanding Syrian troops in different parts of Syria.
So far, Israel has not reacted to the Hizballah force’s advance, notwithstanding public statements by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon that this would never be allowed to happen.
DEBKAfile’s military sources explain this reticence by a persistent misreading of the Syrian crisis in the higher ranks of the Israeli defense establishment. Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, who has a good grasp of its complexities, is a lone voice against the defense minister and IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkot
In Amman, however, King Abdullah and his generals signified both alarm and fury. DEBKAfile’s sources report that Wednesday morning, the king shot off an urgent message to President Putin demanding an explanation for the Russian officers’ action in opening the door of Daraa to hostile Hizballah fighters.
Jordan has fought Hizballah and its conspiracies for three years, ever since its security forces seized an arms cache that Hizballah had smuggled into the kingdom for a terror cell to mount attacks in the northern province of Irbid. Amman is now concerned that Hizballah is close enough to make a grab for Al-Ramtha, the only border crossing between Syria and Jordan. That would be a feather in the cap of Iran’s Lebanese proxy, as the first Arab border crossing to fall to a Hizballah force outside Lebanon, and one, moreover, located athwart a main regional water source, the Yarmouk River.
As of Thursday morning, Jan. 28, Abdullah had not received a reply to his missive from Putin, but a message did come through to Amman from Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Using a back-door intelligence channel, he sent a notice in the name of Gen. Bahjat Suleiman, former Syrian ambassador to Jordan until he was expelled in May 2014, that King Abdullah must now face the consequences of his long support for the rebels of southern Syria.
The monarch was also advised to prepare for the influx of thousands of fleeing rebel fighters whom the combined Syrian and Hizballah forces were pushing towards the Jordanian border.
The next hours will be critical for the development of a similar crisis on the Israel-Syrian border in the Golan region.