Syria and Hizbullah Threaten to Open Golan Front Against Israel

BEIRUT (Reuters) -

Threats from Damascus and its Lebanese ally Hizbullah to turn the Golan Heights into a “resistance front” against Israel could end nearly four decades of calm across the increasingly tense ceasefire line separating Israeli and Syrian forces.

President Bashar al-Assad, and his father before him, kept the front line between Syria and the Golan quiet despite an official state of war between the two countries and Syria’s support for terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza.

But following Israel’s air raids near Damascus a week ago, Assad was quoted as saying he would turn the Golan into a “resistance front” — suggesting he had given a green light to guerrilla groups to launch retaliatory attacks.

Assad’s ally Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hizbullah, followed with a promise to support his efforts “to liberate the Syrian Golan.”

The Syrian side of the frontier has already become a battleground between Assad’s forces and rebels seeking his overthrow, with fighting breaking out even within the narrow, U.N.-monitored separation zone between Syria and the Golan.

“It’s increasingly shaky,” said a Western diplomat in Beirut who is monitoring developments in the Golan area.

In the latest blow to stability in the Golan, Syrian rebel fighters seized four Filipino observers this week, the second abduction of U.N. personnel in two months.

The Philippines said in response it aims to withdraw its 342 soldiers, casting further doubt on the future of the 1,000-strong UNDOF force patrolling the sliver of territory that has formed a barrier between the two countries since 1974.

Japan and Croatia have already withdrawn troops and diplomats say Austria, the largest remaining troop contributor, is reluctant to stay if the European Union eases a ban on arms sales to rebels because it would make the EU part of the conflict.

On the Golan Heights itself, Israeli security officials see little threat from the local Druze. Meanwhile, a Palestinian terrorist group in Damascus said it is forming combat units to try to recapture territory in the Golan Heights, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hizbullah said they would support such operations.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) said it was preparing for new operations after nearly 40 years of quiet on the Israel-Syria border.

The group, designated terrorists by the United States and others in the West, was most active in the 1970s and 80s but retains influence with Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon.