In November 2016, Israel and an Islamic State affiliate that controls territory on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights engaged in a brief battle.
After coming under small arms and mortar fire, Israel responded with an air strike that killed four members of the ISIS group, which goes by the local name of the “Army of Khalid bin al-Walid” (JKW).
Since then, that part of the Golan border has been quiet. However, with the southwestern Syrian cease-fire in force and with ISIS almost defeated in the rest of Syria, it seems a matter of time until ISIS on the Golan will be in the spotlight again.
According to Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs, the ISIS affiliate on the Golan was formed in May 2016 in a merger with other Syrian rebel and jihadist groups. Because the group formed along the Syrian side of the Golan in a triangle of landscape – bordered by the Ruqqad river on the Israeli side, the Yarmouk on the Jordanian side and Syrian rebels on the third side of its border – it was isolated from the rest of the Syrian conflict.
In 2016, its area was quite small, about nine kilometers by fifteen kilometers, consisting of a dozen villages.
In February, ISIS on the Golan Heights suddenly attacked a series of villages held by the Syrian rebels, taking over the town of Tasil and several other villages, more than doubling the size of the area it controls. Since then it has clashed monthly with Syrian rebels.
In September, Syrian rebels published footage of them shooting at ISIS and in November rebels put online a video of an anti-tank guided missile being fired at the town of Tasil.
There have long been questions about why ISIS on the Golan has not clashed with Israel.
In unclear comments in April, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon referenced the November 2016 clashes with ISIS and said: “ISIS opened fire and apologized.”
Al-Tamimi says the comments reflect a misconception of what actually happened. “No evidence supports the claim of an apology,” he said. Instead, the attack on Israel was likely conducted by a few members of the group and other members of the group did not seek a wider conflict.
The ISIS-affiliate’s leaders have not fared well. In October 2016, according to Al-Tamimi, the first leader of the group, Abu Hashim al-Shami, was assassinated. In June of this year, two air strikes targeted the group’s leadership. The first targeted a meeting of ISIS members who had allegedly come from the caliphate’s areas in eastern Syria and the second targeted the ISIS leadership on the Golan, killing another leader and other senior officials.
No one took responsibility for the air strikes.
“How effective this accelerated decapitation strategy against JKW will be remains to be seen, but from the perspective of Israel, Jordan, and the coalition, it is the only viable option short of a ground intervention,” wrote Al-Tamimi.
With the areas that ISIS controls in eastern Syria being liberated daily by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and by the Russian-backed Syrian regime forces, it seems that eyes will eventually turn toward the Golan.
In October, Israel’s Channel 2 carried a report on ISIS “commanders” fleeing other areas of Iraq and Syria to get to the Golan pocket. The video footage also showed what was supposedly an ISIS training camp.
There is ongoing fighting with the southern front of Syrian rebels because ISIS was not part of the cease-fire agreement signed between Jordan, the US and Russia in July.
On November 28, Syrian rebel groups attacked ISIS positions near Tasil. These were local clashes, involving dozens of men and few casualties, conducted by local Free Syrian Army groups with names like Tujamu al-Ahrar.
With so many armed groups in such a close proximity to the Golan, chances of a mishap increase. ISIS has nowhere to go in this area because it is surrounded and eventually one of the groups around it, whether the Syrian regime or the rebels, will seek to overrun the pocket.
The problem for Israel is that it does not want to get drawn into a conflict in southern Syria because it already faces tensions relating to the presence of Iranians and Hezbollah in that area. However, there is likelihood that any advances by the Syrian regime could lead to pressure being put on the ISIS pocket to provoke Israel.