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Golan Diary: A View into Syria

A view of southwestern Syria in late April, from an Israeli lookout post in the Golan Heights. Israel has placed soldiers in the Golan to stand guard against any Syrian attack.
Nicholas Casey/The Wall Street Journal

GOLAN HEIGHTS—Each morning after sunrise, soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces stand on a hill and look into their binoculars over two parallel fences topped in barbed wire that stretch out in front of them as far as the eye can see. Behind the soldiers are towns with names like Kiryat Shmona and Metula, sleepy Israeli suburbs where minivans hit speed bumps and the tract homes all look about the same. In front of them, beyond the two fences, are Al Quneitra and Bir Ajam. There, smoke rises over the green flatlands where the sounds of rockets mark Syria’s civil war.

For three years, this group of Israeli soldiers has had a singular view of the conflict, perched high up on the hillsides of the Golan Heights that were won from Syria in 1967 and again in 1973. Battles unfold between rebels and the Syrian government. Explosions of mortar shells thunder over the expanse ahead. In a town below, the regime flag flies over the main square one day; later an assault happens, and rebels raise the Islamist black flag of jihad.

The Israeli soldiers have no part in the fighting; their job is to stand guard against any Syrian attack. So they quietly watch the battles below them.

“It’s not like before where you could take out your binoculars and find the infantry,” said Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, a 50-year-old reservist and deputy commander of an IDF special forces unit, as we stood at the lookout point. We were peering down into the Syrian village of Madariya.

The Syrian town of Madariya, seen in April, was once a busy place where apple farmers brought their harvests from orchards nearby. Video by Nicholas Casey.

It was hard to tell what was happening. There was a mosque below, streets with no stoplights and concrete buildings that were still under construction. Hirsch said the town was in the hands of the government, or seemed to be, since the soldiers could make out a regime flag flying high over what looked like a water tower.

Years ago, he said, Madariya was a busy place where apple farmers came in with truckfuls of fruit after harvesting the orchards nearby. Today, not a single person could be seen walking there.

Just a short walk from the hilltop, along the same ridge line, was another lookout where we saw a different scene entirely. There in the distance was Bir Ajam. We could make out vans crossing the town and a young man riding his motorbike with a woman grasping him from the back.

The Israeli soldiers said they saw the rebels take this town just after the revolution began. They were what Hirsch called the “authentic rebels,” the fighters from the Free Syrian Army who took up arms against President Bashar al-Assad after protesters called for democracy in Syria three years ago. As Assad’s grip on Syria weakened, jihadists from neighboring Iraq and other countries flooded Syria, making it the site of what they see as holy war to establish an Islamic state.

I asked Hirsch if he ever thought the rebels were looking back at him on top of the hill. “Of course,” he said. “They have binoculars too. Maybe they say, ‘Here is General Hirsch, we haven’t seen him for a while.’”

The first time I came to the Golan Heights, a year ago, I was struck by how much the region reminded me of northern California, maybe more than any other place I’d been. The Israeli side is covered in rolling hills, oak trees and vineyards; even the wildflowers look like the ones you might find walking around Palo Alto. But there the similarities end. These green hillsides are mined. Tanks sit rusting along the roadside where they stopped four decades ago.

A rusted tank from the 1973 Yom Kippur War sits in a field. The hillsides of the Golan are littered with materiel from previous wars. Video by Nicholas Casey.

There’s an old Syrian outpost with a broken roof now covered in Hebrew graffiti, one of many that dot the landscape here. Israelis like to tell the story of the outposts and why almost all of them are covered by eucalyptus trees. The trees, the story goes, were the idea of Eli Cohen, one of Israel’s famed spies who infiltrated the Syrian army. Cohen suggested planting the trees as camouflage for the outposts, then passed the information onto Israeli fighter pilots, who bombed them during the Six-Day War in 1967. Cohen was eventually discovered by the Syrians and hanged.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War weighs on the mind of any Israeli soldier. Syria—along with Egypt in the Sinai—launched attacks to retake the lands that had been conquered from it in 1967. The Syrian tanks were led by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and rolled into the Golan as the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal. Israel turned the tide after three days, but the war left almost 3,000 Israeli soldiers dead. Many in Israel no longer trusted its military for allowing Syria the surprise attack, remembered Hirsch. “We asked: ‘Where were you bright generals who thought you were from God?’”

I asked Hirsch if he felt any pity for Syria, which never signed a peace treaty with Israel and sponsors Hezbollah, whose militants launch rockets at Israel from behind the border of Lebanon. In Tel Aviv, Israeli generals have talked to me before with what sounded like schadenfreude over Israel’s old foe tearing itself apart. But Hirsch said that from here it was hard to feel any satisfaction from what was taking place below.

Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch (right) stands with another Israeli soldier.
Nicholas Casey/The Wall Street Journal

He told me about coming one day last year to the one border crossing Israel shares with Syria, at Al Quneitra, where local farmers in the area used to cross before the fighting, bringing fruit into Israel. There was a large crowd of brides from a nearby Israeli village of the Druze, a sect of Arab mystics who have long held pride in their ability to survive under different flags in the changing borders of the Middle East. The brides, about a dozen of them, were wearing their wedding dresses. After guards checked their papers, they crossed into Syria. “Their husbands were waiting for them on the other side, and so was the war,” said Hirsch.

By midday, a battle was raging far off. From the ridge where we had viewed Bir Ajam, we could spot the smoke rising from another location: a hill near the town, about 25 miles in the distance. We heard mortars exploding though we couldn’t see them.

A battle takes place in the distance, near Bir Ajam.
Nicholas Casey/The Wall Street Journal

The Israeli soldiers wouldn’t venture to guess how long the war might last. When I was here last year, the tide seemed to be turning at last against Assad, and there was talk among Israelis that he would retreat to his coastal base in Latakia. Now the rebels seem to be losing.

The soldiers recalled how they had watched for months last year as the rebels took one village beside a town held by the Syrian regime. Not long later, the rebels captured the village on the other side of the town and hoisted their flag there. But when the day came to take the regime town that lay between, only rebels on one side moved in. They were beaten back. Later, the rebels on the other side launched their attempt on the town, and they too were defeated, the soldiers said. Why didn’t the two sides plan and attack at the same time? The soldiers couldn’t tell.

Hirsch put down his binoculars. As he stood with his back to me, he looked up at the sky, then over the small strip of no-man’s land that sits between the two fences dividing Syria and Israel. There is still no border here, only ceasefire lines from previous wars. Had those wars turned out another way, the suburban lawns of Israel behind us might have been part of Syria, and part of this war.

The general looked back at me. “Syria is shattered to pieces,” he said. “There is no algorithm to understand this.”

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(via WSJ Blogs)