January 25, 2021:
Iran, frustrated by Israeli air strikes and some commando raids, have backed off on their efforts to establish a clearly “Iranian” presence on the Israeli border. Instead, the Iranians are playing a long game and attempting to gain the support of the largely Sunni and Druze civilian population along the border in (from west to east); Quneitra, Daraa and Suwayda provinces. Total population of these provinces in 2011 was 1.4 million but only about 20 percent of that was on or near the border. After the 2011 Civil War began much of the Sunni population fled. How much remains on the border is unclear but is apparently at least 100,000. Only Queneitra and Daraa border Israel. Israel has occupied most of Queneitra province since the 1967 War and the Israeli controlled area is mostly the Golan Heights. This is the high ground overlooking northern Israel where the Syrians made a major, desperate and ultimately failed effort in the 1973 War to retake Golan. Since then, the Assads have maintained that they will eventually get the Golan back and the Iranians tell Assad that this will happen because of the current Iranian effort. This does not please the Assads because the Iranian plan includes turning the border area into something similar to southern Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah controls the population and the border. There is a token presence of Lebanese troops along that border but it is understood by Israel and the Lebanese government that Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon, and Iran controls Hezbollah. The Assads would prefer to control their own southern border but the Iranians have made it clear that there is no choice and if there is any interference by the Assads the Iranians will put a new government in power.
While Israel controls the high ground in Golan, Syria still controls about 30 percent of the Golan heights region. This consists of the low ground on the Syrian side of the heights. The population of the Israeli Golan Heights is about 50 percent Jewish with the rest split between Sunni Arab or Druze. During the 2011 Civil War, which is still unfinished, Israel opened the border to Arab and Druze civilians who were very ill or badly wounded. The Israelis treated 4,000 of these civilians in an army field hospital set up on the border and sent some patients to Israeli hospitals if they needed advanced care. Once the patients were well enough, they had to return to Syria. This program, called Operation Good Neighbor, lasted from 2013 to 2018. The program ended after 2018 when Assad troops and Iranian mercenaries regained control of the border and prohibited further Israeli aid.
Besides treating the injured and sick, Israel also provided economic aid to about 200,000 Syrians, most of them refugees, who had fled to the border area to escape the attacks against Sunni civilians by the Assad forces. The cross-border aid consisted of fuel, electric generators, food and medical supplies. The Good Neighbor program worked as long as the rebels controlled the border. There was no serious threat to the border or Israeli Golan while the program was running. Another benefit for the Israelis was Syrians freely providing useful information on how the war was going in the rest of Syria, including details of the increasing presence of Iranian forces in areas where the rebels had been driven out. By 2018 the Syrian Assad government technically controlled most of Syria but that control was tenuous and possible only with Iranian and Russian help.
Since 2018 the Iranians have unofficially taken control of the border area, usually while wearing Syrian Army uniforms. Most of the Syrian rebels and civilians fled the area leaving a much smaller native population. This helped make the Iranian long-term plan to control the area possible. Iran started their own Operation Good Neighbor program, providing jobs and reconstruction materials and money to improve the lives of the remaining civilians. This means rebuilt clinics, schools, mosques, housing and government buildings.
There’s a downside to this. Anyone suspected of disloyalty is swiftly punished, usually by expulsion from the area or execution for anyone caught aiding the Israelis. Another problem is that the Iranians are trying to convert the largely Sunni Arabs to the Shia form of Islam. The Druze are also eligible but are a special case because most Moslems consider the Druze infidels (non-Moslem) or heretics. The Assads tolerated the Druze because they could be depended on to support the Shia Assads. While the Druze living in Israeli Golan are loyal to Israel, many of those Druze still have family connections with Syrian Druze. For a while the Israeli Druze demonstrated and demanded that Israel allow thousands of Syrian Druze to move to Israel. That did not happen.
As long as Iran provides desperately needed economic aid to Syrian civilians along the border, they gain a measure of cooperation and support from those civilians. But those Syrians know that long-term the Iranians intend to convert most or all of the Sunni Arabs on the border to Shia Islam and use those civilians as human-shields to protect weapons storage sites placed inside residential areas, sometimes in bunkers underneath homes and apartment buildings. This is what Hezbollah has done in south Lebanon and those civilians found that when Hezbollah went too far and provoked another war with Israel in 2006, the weapons storage sites were bombed or shelled anyway. The Israelis have already let the border population know, via radio broadcasts and leaflet drops, that the same rules apply along any portion of the Israeli border controlled by Iran. This threat did not stop the Iranians in Lebanon and it is not stopping them in Syria. Everyone understands that if Iran launches attacks on Israel from these border areas, human shields won’t work because otherwise the attacks would kill Israeli civilians.