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Power Vacuum, Jihad Takeover Loom As Syrian Army Withdraws 20,000 Troops From Golan Heights

The Syrian government has redeployed as many as 20,000 troops from areas around the country’s Golan Heights border with Israel. The troops are being moved closer to Damascus in what is the largest Syrian redeployment in 40 years. They’re leaving behind an increasingly chaotic power vacuum:

“They [the Syrian government] have moved some of their best battalions away from the Golan,” said a western diplomatic source of the Syrian changes. “They have replaced some of them with poorer-quality battalions, which have involved reducing manpower. The moves are very significant.” Separate media reports in Israel suggest the Syrian redeployments could amount to as many as two divisions – up to 20,000 soldiers.

Along with the increasingly precarious status of the United Nations peacekeeping force that has monitored the area since 1974, the moves will deepen concerns over the emergence of a power vacuum along the border. Multiple nations, citing security concerns, have recently reduced or withdrawn their force contributions.

Al Qaeda-linked jihadists have moved to fill in the evacuated areas. These groups have pledged to attack Israel, and are thought to be willing to use chemical and biological weapons as part of those attacks. In recent days they have come within striking distance of what is thought to be Syria’s largest chemical weapons cache:

Arab news outlets reported Monday that Syrian rebel battalions have seized control of As-Safira, a suburb of Aleppo where, according to foreign reports, President Bashar Assad’s largest chemical weapons cache is located. According to the reports, the rebels who took over the city are also close to area in which Syria’s largest arms manufacturing factories are concentrated. Assad’s forces have withdrawn into this area, the Arab news outlets said.

Meanwhile in an audio message posted online, Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri called on rebels fighting in Syria to establish an Islamic state. As part of his audio clip, which ran more than 90 minutes, Zawahiri instructed the rebels to “do all that you can so that your holy war yields a jihadist Islamic state.”

Analysis to the effect that the Syrian opposition is increasingly hard-line and increasingly foreign may deepen Western concerns over supplying rebel forces, even as Iran and its terrorist Lebanese proxy Hezbollah double down on bolstering the Bashar al-Assad regime.

[Photo: Sam Mugraby, / Wiki Commons]