The Syrian government on Saturday accused Israel of assassinating a high-ranking Syrian Druze official responsible for overseeing the strategic Golan Heights boundary. The official, Midhat Saleh, had spent 12 years in an Israeli prison on terrorism charges before serving for decades in the Syrian government. He was shot and killed supposedly by a sniper outside his home in Ein al-Tina in Syria near the border with Israel.
According to a report by Israel’s Walla News, Saleh was believed to have been working for Iranian forces and plotting terrorist activities with Iranian senior officials along the border against Israel.
The Iranians are intent on getting a proxy militia force, run by its Quds Force, on the Israeli-Syrian border. These efforts involve taking over Syrian outposts in the Golan Heights area, gathering intelligence on targets across the border, deploying weapons systems that will be used to target Israel, and placing terrorist units in the Golan for cross-border operations.
Israel has frequently stated that it will not tolerate an Iranian presence on its borders. It has conducted numerous airstrikes on Iranian troops, bases, weapons depots, and warehouses.
The shadow war between Israel and Iran in Syrian territory has been ongoing since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. The killing of Midhat Saleh is the fourth attack attributable to Israel against Iranian interests in Syria in the past week.
Midhat Saleh was born in 1967 and raised in Majdal Shams. In the 1980s, he was a member of Syrian intelligence and engaged in hostile terrorist activity against Israel. In 1985, he was arrested along with other Druze from the region, charged with terrorism crimes, and sentenced to 12 years in prison after a lengthy trial. After his release, he became a member of the Syrian parliament for a number of years. Later, he was appointed head of the country’s Golan Office and an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad. He was a frequent visitor to Shout Hill where Syrians would gather on the border and shout messages across to relatives on the Israeli side.
The strategic Golan Heights was Syrian territory but was seized by Israeli forces during the 1967 war. Since then, the Israeli Defense Forces have been using it as a buffer against further attacks on Israel.
The Syrian state-run news agency SANA and Hezbollah’s al-Mayadin network reported that Midhat Saleh was killed by an Israeli sniper team. If true, it would have required the team to cross into Syria to take the shot. That would represent a major escalation of the shadow war, and of Israel’s efforts to strop Iranian proxies from getting entrenched on its border.
However, in a piece in the Times of Israel, Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow and Iranian expert at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, stated that the incident may not be so cut and dried. According to Guzansky, Saleh wasn’t an especially valuable target. He added that Saleh had run afoul of Hezbollah, and was openly very critical of its activities in the area.