All's quiet on the Golan Heights, for now

Major General Wolfgang Jilke, left, and Maj. Gen. Ian Gordon, at Camp Ziouani in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Major General Wolfgang Jilke, left, and Maj. Gen. Ian Gordon, at Camp Ziouani in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

UNITED NATIONS CAMP ZIOUANI — Deep, freshly carved military trenches cut through rocky pastures filled with Israeli cows. Green Israeli army jeeps zip along the narrow mountain roads that parallel the Syrian border. United Nations patrols in white SUVs rumble along uneven dirt roads that run among empty Israeli tank positions and rolling fields stretching northeast toward Damascus.

For decades, this 45-mile border has been one of Israel's quieter ones. These days, however, many Israelis are wondering if this is where the next war will start.

Israel captured the mountainous Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed them in 1981, and Syria has made their return the central demand in peace talks. Israeli troops on the Heights have spent the last year preparing for a battle with Syria that few people want, but that could be sparked by a mistake or a military miscalculation, especially in the wake of Israel's still-unexplained Sept. 6 air attack on a target in Syria.

"The dynamic is not positive, and the direction is not positive," said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria and the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Tensions along this border have been simmering ever since Israel emerged from last summer's war in Lebanon with its image of military invincibility badly battered.

After the war, Syrian President Bashar Assad called for peace talks with Israel but warned that war was an option if negotiations failed. Israeli newspapers were filled with ominous front-page stories about anonymous, unsubstantiated allegations that Syria was building its forces in preparation for war.

In reality, major military operations were taking place not in Syria, but in the Israeli-controlled Golan.

Maj. Gen. Wolfgang Jilke, the 59-year-old Austrian officer who oversees the 1,300-strong United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the area, and his observers could see nothing to substantiate the Israeli press reports of a Syrian military buildup.

"From our point of view, this is just misleading information," said Jilke, who's one of the few people in the world who can drive the 135 miles between Damascus and Jerusalem.

While Israel staged what U.N. officials called nearly constant military exercises throughout the summer, Jilke said, the Syrian side remained "amazingly quiet."

Jilke oversees a narrow demilitarized zone between Syria and Israel and a wider, 37-mile buffer zone that prevents either nation from amassing more than 6,000 troops, 525 tanks and 198 artillery pieces in the area.

For months, according to U.N. officials who monitor the border, Israel staged major military exercises in the area, tightened its border patrols and began briefly detaining hundreds of Syrian shepherds who strayed into Israeli-controlled areas.

Israeli military violations in the U.N.-controlled border area jumped from a handful in January to nearly 30 in August. Syrian military violations in the same area have hovered around five a month throughout the year.

"We felt that this was not a real good contribution to a kind of de-escalation," Jilke said earlier this week during a rare tour of the U.N. operations along the border.

The Israeli military exercises reached their peak at the beginning of September — just, it turned out, as Israel was preparing to attack a target in Syria.

After the Sept. 6 airstrike was over, Israel began withdrawing its troops from the border with Syria. Israel eventually acknowledged the strike, but little reliable information has emerged about the target.

Reports from Washington have suggested that the target was a nascent Syrian nuclear program supported by North Korea. But neither the United States nor Israel has offered any public evidence to support this theory, and U.S. intelligence officials said they have no evidence to support the allegation.

Zisser called the Sept. 6 attack a "big risk" that paid off for Israel because Syria didn't launch an immediate counterstrike.

"The good thing is that it became clear that Syria is not interested in major war," Zisser said.

As for the Syrian buildup, Zisser dismissed Jilke's analysis as "nonsense."

If Syria were to attack Israel, Zisser said, it would most likely embrace the successful tactics used last summer by the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, which frustrated Israeli forces with its ample supply of mobile short-range rockets.

The dearth of Syrian military movement along the border doesn't mean that no work is being done. Syria has embarked on a campaign to encourage residents to settle in new towns along the border.

In the last 30 years, the Syrian population in the area has skyrocketed from 5,000 to 100,000, according to the U.N., and the building boom continues.

United Nations Observation Post 51 sits on a rocky hillside just above an empty Israeli tank platform, with sweeping views of Syrian villages and farmland.

In the valley below, right along the border, Syria is in the early stages of building a town that's meant to house 10,000 more residents.

Israel worries that Syria is using this construction to conceal construction of military bunkers and storage of short-range missiles.

But Jilke and his officers said it would be virtually impossible for Syria to be concealing that kind of work in the U.N.-controlled areas.

With some Middle East leaders now preparing to take part in the Bush administration's planned November summit, U.N. officials suggested that the Golan is likely to remain quiet. At least for now.

"The peak is behind us, and I'm quite confident that we are off to more quiet and more safe times," Jilke said before getting in his U.N. SUV with his white terrier and heading back to Damascus.