Not Quiet on the Northern Front

New York Daily News, 11/3.  (Co-authored with Benjamin Weinthal)


The disintegration of the Syrian state into warring enclaves is bringing with  it new challenges and threats for Israel. Alarm bells have now been sounded on  Israel’’ shared northern border with Syria.

“For the moment, they [Jihadis] are not fighting us, but we know their  ideology. . . . It could be that, in the coming months, we could find ourselves  dragged into confrontation with them,” said a top-level Israel Defense Forces  officer.

In addition to the Jihadi threat, the Iran-sponsored terrorist entity  Hezbollah remains Israel’s most potent security threat in the north. Just last  month, Israel reportedly struck a Syrian weapons convoy on its way to  Hezbollah.

Evidence is now beginning to emerge of the methods the Jewish state is  adopting to meet this new reality.

Since mid-2012, Syria has been effectively divided into three enclaves. The  first of these is the area controlled by the Bashar Assad regime, supported by  Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The second is an area under the rule of a confusing  mass of rebel forces, mainly consisting of Sunni Islamist militias. The third,  in the far north-east, is an area controlled by Syria’s Kurds.

Israel’s new challenge derives from the second of these enclaves. Regarding  the first and the third, there is no confusion. Assad is an enemy, and his  Iranian backers constitute the most dangerous alliance currently threatening the  Jewish state. In February, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited an  Israeli field hospital treating wounded Syrians, placing the blame squarely on  the Mullah Regime: “All the children wounded, to say nothing of those killed,  were harmed as a result of Iran arming, financing, and training the Assad regime  in the mass slaughter it is perpetrating.”

The Kurds in the north, meanwhile, are generally favorably inclined towards  Israel and the feeling is mutual. This, however, has little practical  import.

The new security threat derives from the rebel-controlled zones, and in  particular those in southern Syria, close to the border with Israel. Three  powerful, Al-Qaeda-linked Salafi militias have emerged to a prominent position  in the rebellion. Two of them, Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq  and Syria) openly proclaim themselves to be franchises of the Al-Qaeda network.  The third, Ahrar al-Sham, is of similar Salafi jihadi outlook, but with less of  a clear connection with core Al-Qaeda leadership.


Major General Aviv Kochavi, head of IDF Military Intelligence, recently  estimated that up to 30,000 salafi jihadis were now fighting in Syria.

The main strength of the Al-Qaeda-linked and Salafi militias is in the north  and east of Syria, far from the border with Israel. ISIS controls a large swath  of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Nusra holds an area of the north.

The possession by Al-Qaeda-linked groups of a de facto sovereign area in  Syria is itself a matter of deep concern for Israel and the west. It enables the  jihadis to train and organize in the Levant in a way which has never been  possible before.

A recently apprehended jihadi cell in the West Bank was preparing to leave  for northern Syria to undergo training before striking at Israeli and U.S.  targets.

But the real nightmare scenario from Israel’s point of view would be if the  jihadis managed to take control of all or part of Syria’s border with Israel,  from where they could begin to carry out operations against Israelis.

Assad has ceded control of most of the border area of southern Syria facing  the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. The border has  been largely quiet for nearly 40 years.

Assad’s main problem in fighting his war is a lack of manpower. He prefers,  therefore, only to hold those areas which are absolutely necessary, ceding less  vital stretches of territory.

ISIS has not yet reached southern Syria. Jabhat al Nusra is there, however,  controlling an area of Deraa province. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has  appointed al Nusra as his chief fighting force in Syria. According to an Israeli  defense expert, al-Zawahri’s jihadist ideology seeks to first launch attacks  against Israel and then move onto the U.S. In sharp contrast, Osama Bin Laden’s  first target was the U.S.

Israel is not waiting for the jihadis to begin attacking it. Rather,  according to recent reports, the Jewish state has established channels of  communication with currently dominant non-jihadi rebel elements in the  south.

The care afforded wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals has been widely  reported.

This assistance appears to form only part of a wider project, in which  Israel is quietly establishing lines of communication with non-Al-Qaeda rebels  along the border, with the intention that they should form a de facto barrier to  any attempt by the jihadis to create a presence there for the purpose of  attacking Israel.

It is obviously in the interests of non-Al-Qaeda rebels to prevent this,  since the last thing they need is for the jihadis to begin their own private war  against the Jews behind their backs — with all the potential for inevitable  Israeli retaliation that this would bring.

The links and communication with rebel elements in the south are unlikely to  lead to a broader Israeli involvement there.

Memories of the Lebanese quagmire, and the awareness that any open Israeli  embrace of this or that group of rebels would serve to instantly discredit them  are likely to keep the Israeli footprint in southern Syria exceedingly  light.

But what can be said with confidence is that Israel is quietly and carefully  establishing and managing the relationships necessary to keep a close eye on  developments, and to create a secure buffer zone against the jihadi threat.


About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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