Al-Qaida’s Syria wing, the Nusra Front, and other Islamist fighters took over a border crossing linking Syria to the Israeli part of the Golan Heights on Wednesday and may use the seized territory to fire a few rockets at Israel, but are unlikely to open up a new front for now.
The fighters, many of whom see Israel as an enemy that ultimately should be conquered, took over the Quneitra post from the Syrian Army.
The rebels are unlikely to open up a front against Israel now because they fear its response and are busy consolidating their gains in Syria and battling to oust President Bashar Assad.
The Islamist groups are the most powerful rebel groups in Syria, with the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in the lead; they fight each other at times, and both also fight against others in the opposition camp.
It is possible the Nusra Front could carry out a token attack in order to upstage its rising rival, the Islamic State.
For now, these Syrian fronts take precedence over waging jihad against Israel, despite the fact that ideologically, Islamist groups see Israel as an enemy that needs to be overrun.
“The offensive launched this morning to take Syrian Army positions involves Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra Front, Liwa Fallujah Hauran, Saraya al-Jihad and Jabhat Thowar Souriya, which together represent a fairly broad spectrum, from Western-backed Free Syrian Army units to the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham and to al-Qaida affiliate the Nusra Front,” Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, told The Jerusalem Post.
Taking the military post bordering on Israel is “clearly a risky move for any Syrian rebel group considering the delicate state of dynamics in that area,” said Lister. However, he said, such a move should be seen as part of the rebels’ wider campaign goal of ridding Syria’s southwest Quneitra Governorate of regime forces.
Asked if rebel forces would attack Israel, Lister responded, “It is extremely unlikely that Syrian fighters, including from the Nusra Front, would seek to launch an attack on Israel anytime soon, as they’re well aware of the potential consequences of doing so.”
Israel suspected that Hezbollah, which supports the Assad regime, carried out a roadside bombing of an Israeli patrol along the Syrian border in March, wounding four soldiers.
Lister predicts that a similar incident “looks more likely now, as pro-Assad forces will be keen to emphasize a perception of threat to Israeli security at a time when the Syrian government is trying so hard to present itself to the international community as a willing and capable partner against terrorism.”
A false flag operation by pro-Assad forces, making it look as if Syrian rebels are responsible, now appears more likely, he added.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum who closely follows Islamist opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, told the Post that he spoke with the commander of Jabhat Ansar al-Islam, who told him that the Nusra Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF alliance of rebel groups), and Ahrar al-Sham were the ones that seized the border crossing.
The Nusra Front likely played a key role in the operation “though one should note that this cooperation between Nusra and SRF contrasts with the tensions up north in Idlib province where Nusra took several towns from the SRF, prompting its leader Jamal Maarouf to liken its behavior to the Islamic State,” explained Tamimi.
Last year, similar incidents occurred, where the Islamic State cooperated with some groups in some localities, but clashed with those same groups in others, he said.
“Localization seems to be an interesting factor here,” Tamimi said.
Tamimi added that “Jabhat Ansar al-Islam has been waging battles against the regime forces in several localities,” which indicates that this current operation near Israel’s border was coordinated on more than one front.
“Jabhat Ansar al-Islam is not to be confused with the jihadi group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam.
Jabhat Ansar al-Islam is what I would call a ‘standard Islamist’ group in the Syrian context: its leader told me he does not want a democratic state but one based on Shari’a,” he said.
This group is clearly anti-Alawite and anti-Shi’ite, he added.
Regarding Israel, Tamimi said that the rebels know better than to drag Israel into Syria, though of course “the vast majority of Syrians of all sects don’t want Israel to exist in any form.”
Tamimi went on to speculate that an attack on Israel would be more likely within the context of a post-Assad order, should that occur.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told the Post, “It makes no sense for any group to attack Israel, because the balance of power doesn’t favor them.
“The problem for Israel is that, for rebel groups, winning on the battlefield is not always the measure of success, because these groups must prove their ideological bona fides,” said Landis. This means they “must prove that they mean what they say and stick to their principles.
“All these groups claim that Israel is an enemy and occupies sacred Syrian land and that they will fight it,” he said.
Referring to al-Qaida, Landis points out that its ideology sees the establishment of an Islamic state in Balad al-Sham (the Levant) as a stepping stone to liberating Jerusalem.
These Islamist groups mock Bashar Assad’s regime for its “cowardly” stance vis-à-vis Israel – even accusing it of upholding a secret alliance with the Jewish state, he said.
“It may only be a matter of time before the Nusra Front attacks Israel,” Landis said.