Israel Holds Large-Scale Military Drill on Syrian Border

The Israeli military staged a large-scale drill last week to prepare for a potential ground operation into Syria in the event of an attack by Islamist rebels or the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to local media reports.

The rising number of Islamist fighters, many aligned to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, arriving near the Israeli border area in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights has placed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on high alert, Israeli television station Channel 2 reported.

The drill included a simulation exercise in which Israeli forces would conduct an offensive in Syrian territory in response to a coordinated terror attack by Islamist rebels, potentially armed with anti-tank weapons, automatic rifles and grenades, on an Israeli border community, according to Israel's Ynet News.

Hundreds of army reservists participated in the exercise which included the use of aircraft, combat helicopters, tanks and artillery guns, reportedly to prevent an attack like the ones ISIS-affiliate, Wilayat Sinai (Province of Sinai), has carried out against Egyptian security forces.

The Israeli military confirmed that the drill was conducted as planned, but would not respond to speculation that the exercise had taken place in reaction to a change in the security situation on the border.

"The IDF routinely conducts dozens of exercises annually, in order to maintain a high level of operational preparedness amongst forces in any potential scenario," an IDF spokesman said in a statement.

"The drill in question was planned well in advance, as part of the IDF's 2015 training schedule and does not reflect any change in the IDF's operational assessment," the spokesperson added.

Yet at least some ex-IDF officials believe that the military is preparing for a terror attack from the Syrian side of the border because of the growing presence of the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in the southwestern Syrian region of Quneitra, which border the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. The Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights consists of a demilitarised zone which is governed by a United Nations peacekeeping force.

"We know that for the last six or seven months there is a jihadi presence on the border between Israel and Syria," says Major (Res.) Aviv Oreg, former head of the IDF's Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad desk. "This is a big threat.... I think that an Al-Qaeda attack in the Golan Heights is just a matter of time."

Israel is also concerned by the presence of fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian regime, in the Golan region. Israeli military sources believe hundreds of Hezbollah fighters are in the area, and Israel has carried out a number of airstrikes against them this year.

In January, the Shiite militant group confirmed that six of its members had been killed by an Israeli airstrike in the Golan Heights, including the son of one of the group's infamous commanders, Imad Mugniyeh. (Mugniyeh was killed in a 2008 joint Mossad-CIA operation in Damascus).

In April, an Israeli aircraft killed three militants attempting to plant a bomb on the Israeli border. No group claimed responsibility for the attempted attack, but an Israeli official told the Times of Israel that Iran—a key sponsor of Hezbollah—was suspected of involvement. Footage of the strike was released by the Israeli military on Sunday.

During four-year-long Syrian Civil War, President Bashar al-Assad's regime has lost large parts of the country to Islamist rebel groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. In recent months, the Syrian army has suffered a number of territorial losses, particularly Deraa in the south and Idlib province in the country's northwest.

The regime's main areas of control are the cities of Damascus, Hama, Homs and the country's western coastal region of Latakia. Assad's forces now only control two areas in the Golan Heights—the Druze village of Hader and the Quneitra area, where pockets of Islamist fighters remain.

As a result of the Syrian government's inability to hold onto territory in the country's south, a number of Islamist rebels have been able to maintain a close presence to the Israeli border. This became evident this summer when Newsweek and other outlets reported that Israel had been treating injured rebels so long as they did not harm the Druze population in the Golan.