Aided by Hizballah and Iraqi Shi’a volunteers, the Asad regime scored significant gains in the civil war in Syria in the first months of 2014. The regime has completed its re-conquest of the Qalamoun mountains and driven the rebels out of Homs. These gains constitute a consolidation by the Asad regime of its area of control in Syria, which runs from Damascus to the western coastal area, and now includes all the country’s provincial capitals with the exception of Raqqa city and half of Aleppo city.
The regime’s advance does not yet mean disaster for the rebels, in that the regime has not yet begun a far-reaching campaign to re-conquer the large swathes of rebel-held territory in the north and east of Syria. Some additional gains have been made, however, as Asad’s forces seek to surround rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Reports have also emerged of continued use by the Syrian regime of chlorine in its attacks on rebel-controlled areas.
The Syrian rebellion has not collapsed, and shows no signs of doing so. At the same time, it has failed to coalesce around a single leadership and remains divided into an enormous number of militia “brigades” representing a wide ideological spectrum. The most powerful, largest and most able rebel units are committed to one or another form of Sunni Islamism. Among these are two al-Qaeda type jihadi groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham).The West and the Saudis are therefore faced with the difficult objective of trying to prevent the defeat of the rebellion and shoring up its foundations, while at the same time avoiding a situation where advanced weapons systems find their way into the hands of extremist jihadi organizations.
Israel is also cautiously increasing its engagement with the war across its borders. Israel has two major areas of interest: Jerusalem is deeply concerned at the possibility of al-Nusra elements finding their way to the border between Syria and the Golan Heights and attempting to strike at Israeli targets from this area. In order to prevent this, Israel is reportedly carrying out its own projects involving contact and assistance to non al-Qaeda rebel elements close to the border, as well as inducements to border villagers to prevent cooperation with the jihadis.
But Israel is also gravely concerned at the possibility of Hizballah inserting itself close to the separation of forces line on the Golan Heights. In early March 2014, the IDF had already detected and fired on what Israeli spokesperson said were Hizballah fighters trying to plant an explosive device on the ceasefire line, an attempt to retaliate against an Israeli air attack on a Hizballah convoy just over the border into Lebanon. Events of this kind raise the possibility of the border becoming an additional front for Hizballah in a future war with Israel.
The killing of an Israeli child, Mohammed Karaka, by a shell fired apparently by the Syrian Army in the area south of the Quneitra Crossing in late June 2014, was further evidence of the volatility at the border. His death was the first Israeli fatality as a result of the Syrian civil war. Israel struck several Syrian military facilities close to the border in response, leading to the deaths of a number of Syrian soldiers. The Syrian regime seemed to wish to avoid further escalation, thus, there was no additional Syrian response at that point.
DIVISIONS IN ISRAELI POSITIONS REGARDING THE OPTIMAL RESPONSE
Is a major change likely in the Israeli stance toward the Syrian rebellion? Or are the observable events likely to stay within clear and manageable boundaries, reflecting concerns regarding the potential negative effects of deeper engagement in the war?
Israel has deep concerns relating to both sides in the Syrian war. This has led to something of a split in perspectives among Israeli professionals who are observing Syria. On the one hand, the Asad regime is a charter member of the Iran-led regional alliance, which is the most potent hostile force facing Israel. The fall of Asad would leave Hizballah 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 would have an interest in Asad’s defeat, and in the first year or so of the uprising, many in Israel indeed hoped for this outcome.
The entry of Islamist and jihadi elements to a dominant position in the rebellion, however, has 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 ISIS, which stretches from deep in western Iraq through eastern Syria to the Turkish border. But ISIS has not yet appeared in the area of southern Syria adjoining the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. The strongest jihadi force that exists in strength is al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s “official” franchise in Syria, and perhaps the single most effective rebel element in Dera’a province in southern Syria.
ISRAEL’S RESPONSE SO FAR
Over the last two years, Israel has quietly been investing in improving its security arrangements along the Syrian border. The border fence has been completely renovated and modernized. A new reserve division is being deployed in the area. Aircraft and drone reconnaissance over rebel positions in the south has increased in recent months, as al-Nusra scored a series of victories. Israel was particularly concerned at al-Nusra’s taking of the eastern and western Tal al-Ahmar hills in April 2014: Western Tal al-Ahmar hill is situated just five kilometers from the separation of forces line in the Golan Heights.
Israeli concerns regarding al-Nusra encroachments on the border have led to contacts with non al-Nusra, western-vetted rebel groupings facing the border, since both Israel and these groups have a common interest in preventing al-Nusra dominance of the area. Israel has offered humanitarian aid to the rebels, including medical treatment for wounded fighters. Among the Syrian rebels reportedly treated in Israeli hospitals is Abdullah al-Bashir, currently leader of the Supreme Military Council. Around 1000 fighters are reported to have received treatment. Lightly wounded rebels are treated in a medical facility established by the IDF close to the border, while more severely wounded men are transported into hospitals inside Israel. Israel is also in contact with village chiefs in the border area, and has offered inducements to prevent them from giving shelter and help to jihadi fighters.
Israel’s efforts in support of some Syrian rebel groupings are being closely coordinated with US and Jordanian activities in support of the rebels in the south. Israeli intelligence officers are also reported to be physically present in the US-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 relevant with regard to the presence of Hizballah fighters close to the border. Hizballah is evidently keen to turn the border along the Golan into an additional potential theater of operations against Israel. Ironically, for many years the Asad regime preferred to use south Lebanon as the site for attacks and pressure on Israel, while keeping the Golan border quiet. It now appears that Hizballah hopes to use the Golan border in a similar way. Israel is clearly determined to prevent the arrival of Hizballah to the border, with all the potential for escalation that this would bring.
Yet Western aid to moderate rebels is currently more of a substitute for more determined action than a harbinger of it. Given the Obama administration’s broader policy of seeking rapprochement, the US has an obvious interest in avoiding an increasingly direct confrontation with the Iran-aligned side in Syria. At the same time, the US doesn’t want to see a regime victory in Syria. It is therefore most likely that US policy favors keeping the rebels in the game, and helping them avoid defeat, while avoiding a situation in which the US is drawn into direct involvement in the conflict.
Some commentators have drawn parallels between Israel’s growing levels of engagement in southern Syria in the present era and its southern Lebanon security zone over the period between 1985 and 2000. Envisioning a scenario in which Hizballah managed to deploy itself along a section of the border, or al-Nusra continued to make gains, replacing both regime and rebel fighters in Deraa and Quneitra, it is not impossible to imagine that Israel might feel obliged to step up its current levels of aid to the rebels.
However, there are a number of factors that suggest that Israel’s engagement with Syria will remain very different from its experiences in Lebanon.
The Lebanese situation emerged from a political and diplomatic alliance between Israel and the Lebanese Ktaeb party/militia. No similar political alliance exists or is even distantly imaginable between Israel and moderate rebel groups such as Jamal Ma’arouf’s Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which is supported by the US and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s experience in Lebanon remains a major trauma for both Israeli society as a whole and for the Israeli security establishment in particular, and has created a built-in resistance to excessive involvement in the political affairs of neighboring countries, beyond the point at which these directly impinge on the safety of its citizens.
As long as al-Nusra keeps its undoubted hostility toward 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 collapse, it is likely that Israeli involvement in southern Syria will remain at its current discreet and moderate level. Should Hizballah make gains in the south, Israel would be concerned, but it is unlikely that the mere presence of Hizballah would be sufficient to trigger a large-scale Israeli intervention. And even if intervention became necessary because of Hizballah attacks, it is likely that Israel would seek to avoid any long-term presence in the ground beyond the separation of forces line. In any case, as of July 2014, both Hizballah and Jabhat al-Nusra are busy in a bloody war against each other, which appears nowhere close to conclusion. So Israel is aware that a new reality has emerged in the area adjoining the Golan Heights. This may now be seen as an “active” border, where provocations from a number of actors are possible or likely. But the Israeli response to this is proving to be a cautious one, on a limited scale and designed to avoid the possibility of Israel being sucked into a major engagement on Syrian soil.
* Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters’ Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His blog can be followed at: http://jonathanspyer.com/.