IDF MILITARY Intelligence (MI) no longer uses the name Syria in referring to the territory and political entity that extends to the east of the Golan Heights. As far as the service is concerned, Syria as a state simply no longer exists.
In the words of a senior intelligence officer, “An egg made into an omelet will never be an egg again.”
One of the ideas floating around is to call the entity by its old Arab name al-Sham (Greater Syria), which is used in the Arab acronym Daesh, which translates as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Syria is not only the only country in an advanced state of disintegration. Some years back, the intelligence community started to reassess the chaotic reality emerging in the Middle East.
Maps drawn up by MI’s Research Department show states being replaced by organizations.
Four states with central governments and defined borders – Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have already evaporated. Instead of the nation-state, the reality is one of organizations and gangs with interests and agendas that are sometimes contradictory and sometimes compatible. Ad hoc, short-lived alliances are formed only to be soon dissolved.
In the past, Research Department analysts collected information on known leaders. Data was usually gleaned from open sources. Now, they try to gather material on shadowy warlords with obscure backgrounds. Sometimes, the researchers don’t even know the name of the chief of a particular terror group or don’t even have a description of him. It is an arduous mission to track the rapid changes in leadership and who controls what parcel of land.
The map of what used to be Syria until the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011 is stained with many hues representing the various factions fighting for the same piece of real estate. The territory of the Syrian Arab Republic extended over 185,000 square kilometers (some nine times more than Israel in the pre- June ’67 borders). Half of it is desert.
The regime of “President” Bashar Assad, a member of an Alawite clan, supported by its two major allies Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite movement, controls only 20 percent of the territory. His fiefdom includes the capital Damascus, the coastal strip which is predominantly populated by Alawites (an ethnic sect of Shi’ite Islam), as well as a small strip in the south adjoining the border with Jordan.
No wonder that MI calls Assad’s territory “Little Syria.” Assad is hardly more than the leader of his Alawite minority group.
Now with the extensive Russian involvement, the focus of the regime and its new-old Iranian-Russian-Hezbollah allies allows to consolidate its control of his territory and slowly to make it possible to regain bits of lost land.
Nevertheless, the military intelligence estimates as well as Western intelligence analysis are that the Russian involvement will only prolong the war and not help to end it.
The Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al- Qaida, which controls 10-15 percent of non-contiguous parcels of Syrian real estate, is of special interest to the IDF. Together with some local militias Nusra is in charge of most of the 100-kilometer border with Israel on the Syria side of the Golan Heights. In recent years, Nusra slightly toned down its militant ideology due to the influence of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which provide it with financial support.
The dominant force among the dozens of rebel and opposition groups fighting Assad is Islamic State (ISIS). It controls 80,000 square kilometers (over 40 percent) of the territory, with over seven million inhabitants, about onethird of the total former population. However, vast parts of the area controlled by ISIS are desert.The capital of ISIS is the town of Raqqa in the northeast.
Until 2011, ISIS was the Iraqi branch of al- Qaida led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He sent jihadi volunteers to Syria to fight the Assad regime when the civil war broke out. In order to show that the fighters were local Syrians, he called the organization Nusra Front (assistance) and put Syrian Islamist Abu Muhammad al-Julani in charge. His name indicates that he is from the Golan.
But by early 2013 al-Baghdadi’s barbarism was too much for even the iron stomach of al- Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who replaced Osama bin Laden. When al-Baghdadi refused to obey orders, al-Zawahiri denounced him.
Al-Baghdadi refused to budge, created ISIS and awarded himself the ancient title of caliph, successor to the Prophet Muhammad.
Al-Julani remained loyal to al-Qaida and al-Zawahiri. Since then the two groups are engaged in fighting the Assad regime as well as moderate Islamic organizations and secular groups but are also involved in fierce battles with each other.
In the areas it controls, ISIS not only terrorizes inhabitants and enacts staged killings of its rivals in a whole gamut of barbaric practices, but has also begun showing signs of governance. It established courts (in 7th century Arab Peninsula style), issued gold coins instead of fiat currency, set up a police force, collects garbage from the streets and runs its schools, which serve as brainwashing forums and recruiting grounds for future generations of fighters.
In contrast Nusra Front does not appear interested in governing. Here lies the major difference between the two groups. While ISIS uses violence to establish a caliphate and topple the regimes in Syria, Libya and Iraq, Nusra and al-Qaida use terror attacks to wreak havoc wherever possible.
Another significant force that is active in the Syrian arena and which controls around 15 percent of the territory are the Kurds.They have managed to control an impressive enclave in the northeast and are moving southward threatening ISIS territory. ISIS is apparently worried. Satellite imagery shows that ISIS is preparing for the possibility of a direct assault and is digging trenches and fortifying positions to defend its capital Raqqa.
The remaining 10 percent of what used to be Syria is divided into a dozen or more groups, gangs and small militias, which surface, change names and disappear, including elements of the pro-Western Free Syrian Army, whose influence in the killing fields is insignificant.
The four important formations are: Assad, ISIS, Nusra and the Kurds.
Regarding ISIS it is necessary to relate to its operations in Iraq and Syria as a whole. The Israeli military tasks a unified research unit to monitor both arms of the militant organization.
The unit recently concluded that ISIS has been in retreat losing some nine percent of the territory it held in both Syria and Iraq to Kurdish forces as well as to the Iraqi army and to Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Its defeats are a result of ground attacks by its opponents supported by the air raids of the US-led coalition.
In these battles, ISIS has lost over the past year nearly 15,000 men, according to Pentagon estimates. “ISIS is in stagnation” observed a senior Israeli intelligence officer. And it may be further weakened by Turkey’s decision to take an active part in the war against it.
Turkey seems about to change its policy.
While the Turkish objectives have not changed – to topple Assad and prevent the creation of a Kurdish state on its border – it recognizes that ISIS poses a threat to its own regime and its brand of moderate Islam. Thus the Turkish Air Force in late August participated for the first time in coalition air strikes against ISIS.
“But it is too early to write ISIS off,” warns the IDF intelligence officer. “It still has its appeal and attraction.” It is estimated that ISIS has a force of 50,000 fighters commanded by former Iraqi military officers with battle experience hardened and improved by the Syrian civil war.
The only way to stop ISIS and drastically reduce its capabilities is to smash it on the ground. Precedents in Syria and Iraq have shown that whenever air raids are combined with “boots on the ground,” ISIS is stopped in its tracks. This does not necessarily mean that the US and Western nations will send troops.
That won’t happen, the US is not even willing to equip the anti-ISIS Kurds with heavy weapons such as anti-tank rockets, artillery and tanks.
The weak response of the Barack Obama administration is seen even where its advantage lies – airstrikes. The US-led coalition has carried out 6,000 strikes in less than a year of the air campaign. This is a ridiculously low figure.
In comparison, Assad’s crippled and obsolete air force executed in one month – July – more air attacks than the entire international coalition in 10 months.
Israeli intelligence believes that there is no chance for a diplomatic solution that will enable Syria to return to its former status as a nation state. The civil war – that has already taken the lives of 250,000 inhabitants and turned one-third, about seven million, of the population into refugees or homeless – will continue.
The IDF is thus preparing for a new reality on the Golan Heights opposite which there is no state, just a chaotic vacuum. The Syrian army, once considered a serious threat to Israel, is no longer a challenge. It has lost, according to a senior Israeli military source, nearly 93 percent of the rockets and missiles that were capable of reaching Israel.
Syria also lost almost its entire chemical weapons arsenal after it was forced by the international community to dismantle it. It may still have retained some remnants of chemical agents – a negligible quantity, which it may have managed to hide from international inspection.
In the absence of any serious military foe on the Golan Heights, the threat, according to IDF military intelligence, is the terror groups involved in the civil war. ISIS’s forward positions are still at least 70 kilometers from the Israeli border. Nusra is in control of most of the border but so far has reached a tacit understanding not to turn its weapons against the Jewish state.
In the northern part of the Golan near Mount Hermon, there are still forces among the 20,000 strong Druse community that remain loyal to Assad. This is the area where anti-Israel forces, led by Hezbollah and backed by Iran, are trying to gain a foothold. The few attacks – less than 10 in the four and a half years of the civil war – directed against Israel from the Golan were all initiated by Hezbollah or Iran.
According to MI, Iran’s al-Quds Force (tasked with foreign operations and led by the influential General Qasem Soleimani) recently established a small “forward command” on the Syrian side of the border. Iran and Hezbollah are very cautious and have only operated against Israel by sending proxies on terror missions. In the past, they hired mercenaries from the Druse village of Hader and in August they activated the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which they sponsor.
Four rockets were fired into the Galilee and the Golan, which caused no casualties and no damage. Israel responded with air strikes against the Syrian army. Precise intelligence led the IDF to the five terrorists who launched the rockets and they were eliminated in an air strike. In the past, Israel also killed a senior Iranian general and a few Hezbollah senior operatives, including Jihad Mughniyeh (the son of Imad, Hezbollah’s “defense minister,” who was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus in a joint Mossad-CIA operation), who were involved in terror plots against Israel.
According to military intelligence, none of the parties involved in the Syrian conflict – Assad, Iran, Nusra and not even ISIS – have any interest in creating tension on the Israeli- Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese borders. All of them are involved in their own battles and have more immediate enemies than Israel.
Nevertheless, the concern remains that even a minor incident could escalate into a major confrontation that no one is interested in.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman
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