MOUNT PERES, Golan Heights — It was yet another sign that the Syrian civil war, with a possible Iranian military presence, has arrived on Israel’s doorstep.
A group of Syrians on Tuesday approached the Israeli fence along the Golan. They demanded that the border be opened and brandished a sign reading, “Israel should stop the barbaric attacks against us now.”
An increasingly effective offensive by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-supported militias, has driven long-entrenched rebel groups from southern Syria since mid-June, profoundly changing the dynamic of the 7-year-old civil war.
The rebels last week signed a deal with Moscow to lay down heavy weapons and cede the border regions with Jordan to Mr. Assad’s forces. Iranian and Syrian news outlets reported that government forces had cut off the key southern provincial capital of Daraa, just 8 miles from the Jordanian border, and that its fall was imminent.
The offensive gives Mr. Putin considerable leverage ahead of the Helsinki summit, particularly with the future of some 2,000 U.S. special operations forces deployed in Syria in question. Allowing Iran to stay in Syria after the conflict ends would represent a setback for the U.S. and Israel, policymakers say.
The Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights is quiet for now, although the war is still raging on the other side.
The Golan — captured from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed by the Israelis in 1981 — is festooned with remnants of past wars. Rusting Syrian and Israeli tanks from the 1970s lie among the volcanic rocks and grassy hills. Along the 1974 cease-fire line with Syria are a row of Israeli army bases and old forts, some of them still surrounded by minefields.
Across the cease-fire line, called Line Alpha, are U.N. Disengagement Observer Force observation points. In August 2014, 44 Fijian soldiers monitoring the cease-fire were abducted for several weeks by extremist factions among the Syrian rebels. Since then, the border has been relatively peaceful, with errant mortars from the fighting sometimes landing on the Israeli side.
As the Syrian regime and Russian air power hammered Syrian rebels, an estimated 320,000 civilians fled the fighting and thousands clustered in tents next to the border fence with Israel. Israel delivered 300 tents, 13 tons of food, 30 tons of clothes and 15 tons of other humanitarian aid for children across the border as part of Operation Good Neighbor. Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Syrians for years.
“The activity has become all the more important due to the difficult conditions faced by Syrians,” the Israeli Defense Forces said on June 29.
“The past few days have been dramatic on Israel’s northern border with over 20,000 displaced Syrians flocking Israel’s border facing a coordinated Syrian/Russian attack,” Nir Boms, a fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Sunday.
Watching the battle unfold is painful to Mr. Boms, who has been monitoring the Syrian conflict for a half-decade and speaks regularly with Syrian friends affected by the fighting.
Dalton Thomas, founder and president of FAI Relief, has been working on the Syrian side of the Golan with the waves of displaced people. He said he has seen surging fear and anxiety among the trapped civilians in the past few days. Medical stocks at clinics are depleting, and there is a gaping hole in aid deliveries.
“They will be in just as dire a situation the day after [the fighting ends] as they were six months ago,” he said, stressing that the end of the fighting will mean only a new phase of humanitarian needs.
For policymakers in Jerusalem, the concern in Syria goes beyond the humanitarian issues.
In mid-June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Mr. Putin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Israel would strike Iranian forces anywhere in Syria if Tehran seeks to entrench as the war winds down. This is a broadening of a policy that Israel has carried out over the past six years.
Israeli air force chief Amir Eshel said last year that Jerusalem had carried out more than 100 airstrikes in Syria to stop weapon flows to Iran’s Lebanon-based ally, Hezbollah. Now, with the fighting closing on the Golan, the issue of Iran’s involvement and Iranian-backed militias in Syria takes on even greater importance.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman vowed a “harsh response” Monday to any violations of the 1974 cease-fire.
In his May speech announcing a new strategy, Mr. Pompeo said Iran was seeking to create a corridor from Tehran via Iraq to Syria and the sea. “Iran wants this corridor to transport fighters and an advanced weapons system to Israel’s doorsteps.”
He detailed various Iranian threats, including a drone flown into Israel and a rocket salvo fired at the Golan.
In July 2017, Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin agreed to a cease-fire in southern Syria. That truce collapsed when the Syrian regime attacked the rebels based in the south in June. Although the State Department condemned the regime’s offensive, the U.S. chose not to intervene.
Robert S. Ford, U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, predicts that the U.S. military will stay in Syriauntil Iran withdraws. The U.S. controls a military garrison called Tanf in Syria near the Jordan-Iraq border and has troops in eastern Syria fighting Islamic State alongside the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces. But evicting the Iranians from Syria will prove difficult, he said.
“The Iranians are deeply embedded in the Syrian security forces, and a senior Iranian official affirmed on July 8 that Iranian advisers would stay in Syria …,” Mr. Ford, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, wrote this week. “If the Iranians stay in large numbers, the potential for greater conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria will remain high.”
But Mr. Assad said in May that “we do not have Iranian troops” in Syria, and officials in Tehran are eager to claim a cut of the vast Syrian postwar redevelopment business, in part to justify Iran’s decision to enter the conflict in the first place.
The U.S. and Israel assert that there is a widespread presence of Iranian forces. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, said there are up to 80,000 Iranian-recruited Shiite militias in Syria. If Moscowand Damascus deny the presence of Iranian forces, then there can’t be an agreement in Helsinki to withdraw them.
For now, the Syrians displaced by fighting continue to cluster next to Israeli forces, hoping the cease-fire lines will protect them from fighting. Their signs on Monday read: “We demand to have an international [presence] so we can live in peace.”