Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit this week to an IDF field hospital where wounded Syrians are receiving treatment served to showcase the Israeli humanitarian effort to respond to the crisis facing Syrian civilians caught up in the ongoing conflict. Recent reports suggest, however, that the Israeli focus on events in southern Syria goes beyond purely humanitarian concerns.
Increasing attention is being paid by Israeli planners to the buildup of extreme Sunni Islamist forces close to the border with the Golan Heights. There are indications that Israel has already begun to implement a strategy intended to keep the jihadis from the border.
According to a report by prominent Israeli Middle East analyst Ehud Yaari published recently by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israel is currently moving toward “assuming a modest role in the Syrian civil war.”
Yaari notes that the extent of Israel’s humanitarian operation inside Syria suggests that “a system of communications and frequent contacts have been established with the local rebel militias.”
The Israeli analyst reports that the background to such increased engagement is Bashar Assad’s regime’s loss of control of most of the border area between southern Syria and the Golan Heights.
Israeli contacts with the rebel militias in this area would serve to facilitate the latter acting as a de facto buffer against the jihadis.
This largely off-the-radar activity in the south forms part of a broader Israeli concern at the increasingly prominent role played by jihadi and Sunni Islamist elements in the Syrian rebellion.
An unnamed senior IDF officer quoted in a recent article in Defense News noted, “Today, rebels control most of the area of the south Golan Heights… Among rebel forces, the moderates are increasingly exhausted while the radicals have become strengthened.”
He added, “For the moment, they 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.”
IDF Military Intelligence head Aviv Kochavi, meanwhile, in an address at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on January 29, estimated that around 30,000 jihadi fighters were active in Syria. Ya’ari, for his part, estimated the strength of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at around 40,000 fighters.
These numbers are of particular interest in that they are considerably in excess of the estimates made by most analysts of Syria concerning the numbers of extreme jihadis present on the Syrian battlefield.
While accurate estimates of combatant forces on the Syrian rebel side are notoriously hard to come by, the more prevalent estimate of the combined strength of al-Qaida-linked forces in Syria would be between 15,000 and 20,000.
This suggests that Israeli estimates may take a somewhat broader definition of what constitutes extreme Salafi and al-Qaida-linked groups than those made by Western analysts.
A third openly Salafi force plays a prominent role mainly in northern Syria. This is the Ahrar al-Sham group, thought to number around 20,000 fighters.
This group has no known links with the central leadership of al-Qaida, yet it adheres to an extreme salafi ideology. One of its leading members, Abu Khaled al-Suri, recently described himself as a member of al-Qaida.
If it is indeed the case that Israeli analysts would include Ahrar al-Sham and groups of this type under the rubric of potentially dangerous Sunni jihadi forces (and there are good reasons to do so), then this has interesting implications.
Ahrar al-Sham is a component part of the Islamic Front, which is the largest single rebel formation at over 60,000 fighters, and the beneficiary of extensive aid from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So if Jerusalem regards this force as on par with more obviously al-Qaida-aligned groups, this is a significant point of contention between the two main anti-Iran countries in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Israel’s concerns regarding the Sunni jihadis are certainly not limited to the border area. The al-Qaida- linked cell whose capture was announced on January 22 was apprehended while preparing to enter northern Syria via Turkey for training purposes.
It has also not escaped Israel’s attention that a de facto sovereign jihadi-controlled zone now exists in eastern Syria’s Raqqa province, stretching into western Anbar province in Iraq.
Such an enclave has never existed in the Levant before. The jihadis are busy fighting Assad and his Iranian backers now. But they are open in their desire to also engage against Israel.
While close attention should be paid to Israel’s concerns regarding the Sunni jihadis and the consequent relationship with the rebels in the south, there are also factors likely to militate against any broader Israeli intervention in the Syrian war.
Firstly, the Iran-led regional bloc remains by far the most potent and dangerous alliance challenging Israel at the present time. As Kochavi said in his address: “The new phenomenon of global jihad at our borders is disturbing, but we shouldn’t be confused. Our mortal enemy remains the ever-strengthening axis of evil formed by Hezbollah, Syria and the Iranian regime.”
This point, and the Iranian responsibility for events in Syria, was underlined by Netanyahu in his remarks made at the field hospital.
The Iran-led bloc includes paramilitary clients, but is led by a powerful state with nuclear ambitions.
There is no parallel structure to this on the Sunni jihadi side.
Moreover, unseen but unmistakable is the trauma of Israel’s long involvement in Lebanon, which remains written into the DNA of Israeli commanders and planners, and of the Israeli system as a whole.
There is a very deep aversion to anything that might look like interference in the internal processes of neighboring states – particularly where this could involve Israeli boots on the ground and hence, loss of Israeli life.
This salient institutional memory will probably ensure that despite its very real concerns, Israel’s engagement against the Sunni jihadi threat in southern Syria will remain as far as possible invisible, and on a limited, deniable scale.
Yet this engagement is taking place. On a daily basis, a few kilometers northeast of Tiberias, Israeli forces are involved in the complex task of keeping al-Qaida at a safe distance from the Golan Heights and the northern Galilee.