Seeing the Syrian Border in the Golan

Looking towards the Syrian border  near Kuneitra
Looking towards the Syrian border in the Golan

Our tour bus bumped down a stone strewn dirt road. We had driven steadily upward through the Golan for 45 minutes. I thought that by now we must be close to the Syrian border. I was soon to find out just how close we were.

We pulled up in front of an abandoned two-story concrete building. The concrete walls were pocked with holes and the steps leading to the entrance were crumbling. Through the glassless windows, we saw a series of small rooms running the length of the building. None of the rooms had any furniture; graffiti was painted on many of the walls. Once this had been a school or an office building. Now it looked like a bombed out wreck.

Before we left the bus, Elliot Chodoff, a security expert who was our leader for this tour to the border area, organized by Honest Reporting, told us to be careful. We would be going up to the roof, but should not lean on the stair railings–there was no telling how safe they were. He then led us to the building entrance.

Former Syrian military headquarters near Kuneitra in the Golan Photo courtesy of Linda Pilking
Former Syrian military headquarters in the Golan
Photo courtesy of Linda Pilkington

At one time this building had been Syrian headquarters on the Golan Heights. It had been built in the 1950s by the Russians, in classic Soviet functional style. It had been built to last; although it had suffered a direct aerial bomb attack, it had survived. We were able to see some of the reinforced concrete and exposed rebar construction as we walked through the building. We walked up the winding stairs carefully. There were pebbles and dirt on all the stairs, and gouges on their edges. The railing did look sturdy enough in some places, but some of it was obviously not trustworthy.

The second floor corridor was muddy, with puddles in some spots. A previous visitor had placed broken stone on the floor to keep his, and our, feet dry. But it had rained earlier this week, and a couple drops of water dripped on my head from overhanging debris.

At one end of the corridor was a brightly colored, detailed stylized

Orthodox  icon on wall of former Syrian military headquarters
Orthodox icon on wall of former Syrian military headquarters.
Photo courtesy of Linda Pilkington

painting. It was incongruous to see such a large full color Orthodox icon in this wreck of a building. Not understanding the symbols, I wondered what saint it was, and why it had been painted here.

We climbed an enclosed stairway at the end of corridor and emerged into the sunlight.  We stood there on the roof and looked all around us. We saw vineyards, fruit orchards, and flat green fields. To the north, we saw the Hermon, a long snow capped mountain range, which marks the border between Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. On the other side was Kuneitra.

Elliot told us to be quiet and listen for a moment. In such a pastoral setting I expected to hear birds. What I heard was the boom of artillery. Syria’s civil war was less than three miles from us.

Several people shifted their feet uneasily; others looked a little worried being so close to the war.

“Don’t worry,” Elliot said. “You’re safe here. They are not going to fire in this direction.”

Not so long ago, the Syrian forces directed their fire at the rebels from the east to the west. A stray shell landed in Israel and exploded. Assuming it had been an accident, Israel registered a mild protest.

A few days later, another shell landed in the same area. Another accident? Perhaps, but not very likely. Israel protested a little more strongly.

A few days after that, a third shell landed in Israel. Israel destroyed the battery that had fired the shell.

Israel does not want to escalate conflict–our response has always been graduated. The IDF artillery forces practice for accuracy. They say that from the Golan, they can hit the garbage can of their choice in Damascus. That is probably an exaggeration, but the point is that a response must be one that the Syrians can accept as justified.

Few stray shells have fallen that area of Israel since then. The Syrian forces now fire on the rebels in a north-south direction.

We looked around us, as Elliot explained what we saw. To the east was the town of Kuneitra, in Syria. Israel had captured it in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. During the ceasefire negotiations, Syria demanded that Israel withdraw to the line of volcanoes to our north and west. That was not a defensible position and Prime Minister Golda Meir refused. In response, Syria asked for the town of Kuneitra (Qunaitra). President Hafez Assad promised the town would not be used for military purposes. It would be rebuilt as a town for about 15,000 civilians. In the end, Israel retained the line of volcanoes and some of the plain to their east, where we were standing, and Syria got Kuneitra.

We looked at it from the distance of a little more than a mile. It does not appear like a thriving town with a population of 15,000. It looks abandoned. The only thing built since 1974 is an observation tower. A new Kuneitra has been built further away, but it is a military town.

Every time Syria has wanted to negotiate something with Israel, we have been told by the Americans, “You can trust them. Assad always keeps his promises.”

And Israel answers, “What about Kuneitra?”

“Well, except Kuneitra.”

 Always…except. The two words do not belong in the same sentence. We can always trust Syria to keep its promises except when it does not.

We then shifted our attention a little northward, where the UN observers are stationed. A dark green fence runs right behind them. The fence is new–it’s been there only about two or three years.

For 67 years, Syria has been an implacable enemy of Israel. About 80% of the Syrian army was focused on Israel, and the IDF faced them. Israel’s biggest fear here was a massive frontal assault. But neither Hafez Assad nor his son Bashir wanted to engage in another major attack. The last one, in 1973, had been disastrous for them.  After the cease fire in 1974, the border was stable and no fence was erected. The two countries had a clear-cut relationship; either everything was calm or it was in crisis. When things were quiet, about 99% of the time, a fence was unnecessary. When things were in crisis, the border was a very dangerous place, and a fence would have been pointless.

But when Syria collapsed a few years ago, the border area became unstable and unpredictable. No one controls it. Israel no longer faces an enemy army, but many hostile groups. None of them are predictable. A barrier, one that could quickly detect and deter enemy activity, became necessary. Like security fences elsewhere, this one has electronic sensors along its length: touch sensors, motion detectors, infrared cameras, and ground radar, according to Peter Murtagh of the Irish Times.

The sound of the nearby bombardments was making some of us more and more nervous. We were glad to walk back down through the bombed out building and return to the bus. Driving away from the border, the road descended into a lush agricultural area. On one side of us we saw rows of grapevines; on the other side was a large orchard of apple trees in bloom.

Elliot told us to look out the windows ahead and behind us. We were in a large circular valley, the crater of an old volcano. He told us that the vineyard grew grapes for one of the Golan Heights wineries. Before 1967, when the Syrians held the area, this crater was used for training terrorists.

“Terrorist training….Wine grapes.” He made a motion with his hands, as if weighing two things, and smiled. “We win!”

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