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When Our Enemy Fights Our Enemy
January 11. The Syrian civil war is measurably the greatest disaster to hit the Levant since the end of World War II. It has led to the displacement of around half of Syria’s population of 21 million. Over 200,000 people have lost their lives.
The fighting has spilled over into Iraq, where an equally ferocious conflict is raging. It has also spread into Lebanon, albeit right now in a much more limited way because of the overwhelming strength of Hezbollah in that country.
Israel has nevertheless so far avoided suffering major fallout from the terrible war taking place directly to its north. How has the Jewish state managed to achieve this? What is the Israeli position on the war and what are Israel’s vital interests regarding it?
It is first of all important to understand that Israel has no natural allies on either side of Syria’s civil war—neither among the Iran-allied “regime” forces, nor with the overwhelmingly Sunni Islamist “rebels.” Israel has deep concerns with both sides.
This has led to something of a split in perspectives among Israeli professionals who are observing Syria, as the Syrian war itself morphed from a largely civilian uprising against the dictatorship of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad into a sectarian civil war.
The Assad regime is a charter member of the Iran-led regional alliance, the most potent hostile regional force facing Israel. The fall of Assad would have left Hezbollah isolated in Lebanon and end Iranian hopes of creating a contiguous line of friendly states stretching from Iran’s western border all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. From this point of view, Israel has an interest in Assad’s defeat, and in the first year or so of the uprising, many in the country hoped for this outcome.
But the entry of Islamist and jihadist elements to a dominant position in the rebellion altered the Israeli calculus. Israel is acutely concerned at the emergence of de facto sovereign areas controlled by what it refers to as “global jihadi” forces. These areas include the large space controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (known as ISIS or ISIL), which stretches from deep in western Iraq through eastern Syria to the Turkish border.
The emergence of a reality in which two blocs hostile to Israel are making bloody war on one another to its immediate north has led to a cautious, multifaceted Israeli response. In essence, Israel seeks to avoid involvement, intervening only where its key interests are seen to be at stake.
So far, this involvement has taken two main forms: intervention from the air against the regime and its allies to prevent vital weapons systems from reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon; and efforts to prevent jihadi elements from coming to dominate the area immediately west of the Golan Heights.
According to western media reports, Israel has, from early 2013, carried out a series of air raids on regime facilities in Syria. All appear to have been intended not to bring about a general destabilization of the regime, but rather to prevent the transfer or deployment of specific weapons systems.
For example, according to The New York Times, on January 30, and from May 3 to 5, Israeli aircraft attacked convoys transferring weapons across the border from Syria into Lebanon. The convoys are believed to have been bringing weapons systems to Hezbollah. On July 5, Israel bombed a Syrian depot thought to have contained Russian Yakhont antiship missiles. Such a system, if transferred to Hezbollah, would make ships in Israel’s Mediterranean waters vulnerable to Hezbollah attack.
At least five other similar attacks have been reported by international media. The latest of these took place in December 2014, on a warehouse in Dimas, outside Damascus. The online Times of Israel reported that the raid targeted a consignment of advanced S-300 antiaircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah.
A clear pattern emerges from these raids—Israel is seeking to enforce red lines regarding what it will not permit the Assad regime to transfer to Hezbollah. These raids should be seen in the larger context of Israel’s contest with Iran, of which Hezbollah is a proxy, rather than as an intervention in the outcome of Assad’s fight against his internal enemies: Jabhat al-Nusra (or Al Nusra Front) and the Islamic State.
The jihadi force that exists in strength in the area immediately west of the Golan, Al Nusra Front, is Al Qaeda’s “official” franchise in Syria. It is perhaps the single most effective rebel element in Quneitra and Dera’a provinces in southern Syria.
The Islamic State has, for the most part, been unable to organize in this area. However, recently, this has begun to change, as the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade, a prominent, formerly Western-aided group in the area, appears to have pledged baya (allegiance) to the Islamic State. This group is now fighting Al Nusra Front in this area.
Over the last two years, Israel has been quietly improving security arrangements along its border with Syria. The border fence has been renovated and modernized. A new reserve division is deployed in the area. Aircraft and drone reconnaissance over rebel positions in the south has increased in recent months, as Al Nusra Front has scored a series of victories. Israel is particularly concerned with Al Nusra Front’s taking of the Quneitra border, bringing the organization into direct proximity with Israeli-controlled territory.
Israeli concerns regarding Al Nusra Front’s encroachments on its border (along with the possible Islamic State presence in the area) have led to contacts with non-Al Nusra Front, Western-vetted rebel groups facing the border, since both Israel and these groups have a common interest in preventing Al Nusra Front dominance of the area.
Israel has offered humanitarian aid to the rebels, including medical treatment for wounded fighters, and over 1,000 fighters are reported to have received such treatment. Lightly wounded rebels are being treated in a field hospital established by the Israel Defense Forces close to the border, while those who are severely wounded are transported to nearby Israeli hospitals in Nahariya and Safed.
Israel is in contact with village chiefs in the border area, and has offered them inducements to prevent them from sheltering and helping jihadi fighters.
Israel’s support of some Syrian rebel groups is being closely coordinated with the United States and Jordan. Israeli intelligence officers are reported to be physically present in American-built facilities established to coordinate support efforts in northern Jordan.
Israeli contact with the rebels and the establishment of control by Western-vetted groups is also of relevance with regard to the presence of Hezbollah fighters close to the border. Hezbollah is evidently keen to turn the border along the Golan into an additional potential theater of operations against Israel.
Ironically, for many years the Assad regime preferred to use southern Lebanon as a launching point for attacks and pressure on Israel, while keeping the Golan Heights border quiet. It now appears that Hezbollah hopes to use the Golan border in a similar way. Israel is clearly determined to prevent the arrival of Hezbollah at the border, with all the potential for escalation that this would bring.
For as long as Al Nusra Front keeps its hostility to Israel and Jews to a verbal level, and avoids direct attacks on Israeli communities, and as long as the non-jihadi Syrian rebels can avoid complete collapse, it is likely that Israeli involvement in southern Syria will remain at its current discreet and moderate level.
The regime side also features in Israeli considerations close to the border. Israel targets the regime when fire across the border takes place, making clear that it still holds Assad ultimately responsible for events in his country.
Even if an intervention became necessary because of Hezbollah or Sunni jihadi attacks, it is likely that Israel would seek to avoid any long-term presence on the ground beyond a separation of forces line. In any case, for the moment Hezbollah and Al Nusra Front are busy in a bloody war against each other, which appears nowhere close to conclusion.
The Syrian war has brought new challenges for Israel. However, the contours of the Israeli response have become clear: contacts with non-jihadi rebels in the south to prevent jihadi control of the border (with only partial success), limited action against the regime to prevent the transfer of game-changing weapons systems to Hezbollah and “punishment” of the regime for any spillover of the fighting.
Ultimately, given the hostility of all combatants in Syria for Israel, the current de facto partition of the country and the continued mutual bloodletting are not contrary to Israeli interests—as long as the border can be kept secure and major spillover prevented.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a fellow at Philadelphia’s Middle East Forum.
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