A web of alliances

As the Islamic State marches on, Israel and Iran could find themselves on the same side of at least one Middle Eastern front.

UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) troops move through Israel’s Golan Heights before crossing into Syria, August 31. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) troops move through Israel’s Golan Heights before crossing into Syria, August 31.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
 On August 26, 12 hours before a cease-fire to end the 50-day long Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza came into effect, a no less significant event took place 964 kilometers away from Tel Aviv. This event, like the Gaza war, signifies the rapidly changing new reality in the Middle East – a reality that is replete with severe dangers for Israel but also opens windows of opportunity for a radically different regional lineup.
In Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, an autonomous entity of the dysfunctional Iraqi state, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. In a joint press conference, the two revealed that Iran had agreed to supply weapons and ammunition to the Kurdish army, which is battling the extremist Islamic State (IS). The Kurds are fighting alongside the Iraqi army with the backing of the US Air Force.
According to foreign reports, Israel in the past has supplied weapons and military advice and know-how to the Kurds. During the 1960s and 1970s, Iran, then a monarchy, and Israel were strategic allies working together to assist the Kurds led by Mustafa Barzani (father of Masoud) in their battle for self-rule against Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad.
Thirty-five years after the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has demonized Israel as the “small Satan” the two sworn enemies find themselves on the same side of a Middle Eastern front and sharing at least one common national interest – to stop the advancement of the bloodthirsty IS forces.
Regarding the Syrian civil war, now in its 42nd month, Israel and Iran share the same goal – to limit the growing influence and stop the victories of IS. Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite proxy, Hezbollah, are deeply involved in the battle to keep President Basher Assad in power and maintain control of the country. Israel hopes to prevent IS units from taking control of the Syrian side of the 100-kilometer long stretch of border on the Golan Heights, which has been mostly quiet for 40 years.
However, quiet on the Golan seems to be becoming more elusive by the day. Two days after the fighting in Gaza came to an end, several incidents took place near the Israeli border that bode ill for Israel.
It began with extremist rebel forces, not including IS, fighting the Damascus regime and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies, taking over the Syrian side of the Quneitra border crossing with Israel. Three hundred rebels stormed the compound and the small Syrian army force on site fled.
Quneitra is the only official crossing point between the two hostile states serving UN personnel as well as the small Druze community on the Golan Heights. Young Druze residents use Quneitra to cross into Syria for university study and to find marriage partners among fellow Druze on the other side of the border. Farmers use the crossing to send agricultural produce to Syrian markets.
On August 28, rebels from Jabhat al- Nusra took captive dozens of UN peacekeepers from Fiji stationed in the demilitarized zone near the border.
The captured Fijians are part of UNDOF – United Nations Disengagement Observer Force – a mechanism that was put in place in 1974 at the end of the Yom Kippur War.
The UNDOF mandate, renewed every few years, is to ensure that Israel and Syria maintain the cease-fire and disengagement of forces. According to the agreement, a demilitarized (buffer) zone was established on both sides of the border – banning the entrance of armor and overflights.
JABHAT AL-NUSRA ( the N usra F ront) is a branch of al-Qaida operating in Syria and Lebanon. Nusra, which numbers some 7,000 mostly Syrian fighters spread out across the country, reached the Golan about two years ago. The numbers in that area have grown over the last few months as IS forces took control of northeast Syria – of late overtaking the Syrian air base at Tabqa and declaring the city of Raqqa as the capital of their self-declared caliphate – pushing Nusra southward.
With the exception of a few isolated positions, the entire 100-kilometer border strip is controlled by rebel forces, much of it by Nusra units. These are Al-Qaida fighters and their hatred for Israel is strong. Like IS, they wave a black flag, aim to carve out a caliphate, and they also abduct foreigners.
Despite all of this, Israel has managed over the past year to develop reasonable neighborly ties with the various factions, including Nusra. One factor, which has helped to advance this relationship, is the more than 1,000 casualties from the civil war who have been brought into Israel for treatment at the Sieff Hospital in Safed, the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, and an IDF field hospital set up near the border The situation is reminiscent (if on a smallscale) of the “good fence” policy Israel had on the Lebanese border in the 1970s.
The establishment of a hospital and transfer of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan and Turkey made by private donors and non-governmental organizations on the coattails of the government and the IDF are part of a very clear approach to make every effort to preserve quiet along the border.
On the other hand, armed conflict and chaotic conditions have always presented opportunities for the other side to glean intelligence.
Amid the uncertainties, where it is difficult to distinguish between friend and foe, it is easier to recruit agents from among the confused and desperate population, or to send reconnaissance missions.
IS has no hold on the Golan Heights but it does have a small force of fighters in a few of the villages near the border. This presence is not a major concern for Israel, but the defense establishment is keeping a very close watch on developments. The volatile situation in Syria, in general, and in the battles on the border, in particular, can change at any moment. The danger that the continued advance of IS in Syria will whet its appetite and lead it toward the Israeli border cannot be ignored.
To add to the chaos, while the UN hostage crisis remained unresolved, an Israeli anti-aircraft battery firing a Patriot missile shot down a hostile drone violating its air space near Quneitra. Israeli sources could not determine whether the unmanned aerial vehicle belonged to Syria, Hezbollah or Iran, but its purpose was the same. It was on a reconnaissance mission – not necessarily against Israel, but probably to assess and photograph the rebel position on the Quneitra border crossing.
This illustrates the irony surrounding the Syrian-Israeli border crisis. Israel doesn’t want the Islamists to control the border area, and prefers Assad’s army as the devil it already knows. However, holding the regime responsible for violations of the disengagement agreement, the IDF shoots back at the Syrian army, regardless of who is behind them.
ISRAEL’S POLICY of non-intervention in Syria’s civil war, which has ravaged the country for three and a half years and has cost the lives of more than 190,000 people, has not changed. Israel has though, apart from occasionally shooting back at Syrian army positions, intervened several times.
The Israel Air Force has attacked six or seven times convoys or weapons depots of the Syrian army, transporting or storing advanced weapons, primarily long-range rockets for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel never claimed responsibility for these attacks, which has allowed both sides to preserve deniability and keep Assad’s regime from feeling humiliated and forced into attacking in response.
Despite Israel’s non-intervention policies, there are voices within the defense establishment and intelligence communities who have second thoughts about whether it is better for Israel that Assad stays in power.
At the outset of the Syrian war, the prevailing thought in the Israeli decision-making echelon was that it was in the national interest to see Assad go. It was then-defense minister Ehud Barak who said that Assad’s days were numbered, giving him three weeks before being toppled. This attitude was based on the fact that Hezbollah and Iran – Israel’s most hated rivals – were on Assad’s side. So the old dictum of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” prevailed. Now, however, the same concept is pushing Israeli leaders to realize that Assad, Iran and Hezbollah – having such a dangerous enemy as IS – could, at least on one front, find themselves with an alliance of interests with Israel.
As such, in Syria – like in Iraq, with the Kurds – Israel might find itself on the same side as Iran.
The events in Iraq and Syria demonstrate the phenomenal changes the Middle East has undergone in recent years. Old alliances are disintegrating. Old interests are becoming unimportant. The ties between the various forces are changing and new players are emerging onto the scene.