On 24 January, a senior officer in the Israeli military intelligence held a special briefing, at which it was reported that there is «the possibility» of Israel rethinking its strategy in the Syrian conflict. The reason? The sharp rise in the number of militants in Syria linked to al-Qaeda who are uncompromising when it comes to Israel. Just two years ago they numbered 2,000, but today this number has increased to 30,000. They have travelled to Syria from countries in the Middle East, Europe, America… Israel is starting to come to the conclusion that if Bashar Assad is overthrown and the militants’ immediate goal realised – the creation of a large Islamic state from Syria and parts of Iraq – then these forces are going to come down on them hard. Hence the need for Israel to look at the possibility of carrying out its own large-scale operations in Syria, apparently.
According to the Israelis, the Islamist groups in Syria that pose a threat to their country include:
1. Jabhat al-Nusra. On 22 January, the Israeli security agency Shin Bet reported that it had foiled three planned terrorist attacks by this organisation, including blowing up the US Embassy in Tel-Aviv and the Convention Centre in Jerusalem. The alleged perpetrators included immigrants from Turkey and the North Caucasus republics.
2. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
3. Ahrar ash-Sham. This group serves as the basis for the recently established Islamic Front (IF), which America has declared to be a «moderate» group. Israeli intelligence sources are disputing this assessment, pointing out that Ahrar ash-Sham’s leader, Abu Khalid al-Suri (real name Mohamed Bahaiah), admitted that he is a member of al-Qaeda. Experts in France are also in agreement with this, observing that Muhamed Bahaiah acts as al-Qaeda’s chief coordinator in Syria, used to have links with Bin Laden and remains a close acquaintance of al-Zawahiri.
4. Jaysh al-Islam. This organisation dominates the Damascus region and is known to have close ties with Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies.
The Israeli army (the IDF) is considering several options for how it could tackle these groups:
a) creating buffer zones on the Syrian side of the border;
b) air and ground strikes against jihadist border concentrations;
c) deep thrusts into Syria and Iraq to block the advance of al-Qaeda forces into Jordan;
d) the targeted assassinations of top al-Qaeda commanders; and
e) preventing jihadist forces from seizing areas in Syria that could subsequently be used as springboards from which to advance into Israel.
At the same time, however, Israeli strategists are stipulating the need for all the «pros and cons» of fighting al-Qaeda in Syria to be considered carefully, bearing in mind that such a military campaign would ease the pressure on Assad’s regime and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah, which Israel, of course, does not really want to do. But at some point, they are going to have to choose which is more important – real security or the myths of their own propaganda.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, «Security Challenges of the 21st Century», Israel’s Defence Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, stated that the US has encountered many challenges in the region and is trying to reduce its presence and intervention. At the same time, he believes that Syria’s partition into several parts is a looming reality, which means that Israel needs to be prepared for the situation when its «red lines» are crossed. This would be «an attack on Israel or the transfer/use of chemical weapons» which, according to Ya’alon, could alter Israel’s position regarding its «non-intervention» in what is currently happening in Syria.
Israel’s significant military build-up on its border with Syria has already been declared. The IDF’s press office announced the official commissioning of a new territorial division known as the Bashan Division after the ancient name of the Golan Heights region, in which the division will be stationed. The division will be led by Brigadier General Ofek Buchris, a former commander of the Golani Brigade and then commander of the 366th Reserve Division, known as the «Netiv Ha-Esh» Division.
The IDF’s 36th «Ga’ash» Armor Division, which as well as carrying out combat missions served as the territorial division in the Golan Heights region, will remain in the same place, but will move into the reserves of the General Staff. This division includes the «Golani» Infantry Brigade, the «Saar me-Golan» and «Barak» Armor Brigades, and the «Golan» Artillery Regiment.
On 28 January, commenting on a report about the renewal of US arms supplies to Syrian rebels, the Israeli military intelligence website DEBKAfile reported that, this time around, they are going to carry out the plan agreed with Tel-Aviv for the creation of two buffer zones on the border between Israel and Jordan. The US is also supposedly convinced of the futility of trying to alter the balance of forces in the Syrian conflict in its favour, and is ready to restrict itself to protecting its last reliable allies in the region. The plan is for both zones to be created in Syria, sufficiently close to Damascus.
According to reports by Reuters, high-ranking officials in American and European intelligence agencies have confirmed that a plan approved by the US Congress for the financing of arms supplies to rebel groups in Syria contains secret articles that not all members of Congress are aware of.
Weapons and ammunition, including anti-tank missiles and grenades, will be delivered to Syria through Jordan. In addition, the US is also intending to provide the so-called moderate opposition with a variety of equipment, including modern communication equipment and night vision equipment.
Even on the face of it, however, there are serious doubts about the potential of America and Israel’s «new strategy». To begin with, it is mistaken in the false hope that there are forces loyal to the West that can be placed along the border between Israel and Jordan, similar to the Maronite Army of South Lebanon that existed in the 20th century. Finding «border guards» like that in Syria is extremely difficult. The entire region of the Golan Heights on the Syrian side is dominated by anti-Israeli minded jihadists from Jabhat al-Nusra. In many respects, these were nurtured by Israel itself, which was once obsessed with the idea of overthrowing Bashar Assad no matter what. It should be noted that since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, more than 800 militants, including 28 leaders, have received medical help in Israeli hospitals, including the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, where top-level officials are treated. How exactly «democrats» are to emerge in place of these al-Qaeda-ists, however, is unclear.
The picture is more varied in the sector adjacent to Jordan, but it is also unlikely that local rebels want to turn into eternal «military settlers». Everyone remembers the fate of the puppet South Lebanese Army, whose soldiers were eventually forced to abandon their homeland with their families and sit and vegetate in Israel, deprived of all rights. In fact, if the Islamists conquer the rest of Syria, pockets like these will be crushed in a matter of hours.
It is about time people understood that none of the various strategic equations in Syria can be solved without the involvement of Bashar Assad as both the most important figure in Damasus and the country’s president. The Syrian government does not need any kind of external intrusion against its enemies, enemies that were nurtured by the «suddenly enlightened» Western and Israeli strategists themselves. Something different is required, namely that the US and its allies stop all inference in Syria’s affairs. Damascus will deal with the rebellion itself single-handed. That way it will be cheaper, and result in fewer victims.