In the last few days focus has again turned to Israel’s role in Syria. There are of course the fever-swamps of the region, where everything involves the Jews Zionists and everything that has happened has been orchestrated by this shadowy force, but on Sunday there came two events in the real world that highlighted a long trend of Israel’s increasing involvement in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers, who are a veritable occupation force at this stage in regime-held areas of Syria. The United Nations released a report documenting Israel’s support to the Syrian rebellion in the south, and Israel struck from the air at regime targets inside Syria.
First, the airstrikes. By my count, including the September 2007 raid when Israel demolished the nuclear-weapons facility at al-Kibar in the deserts of eastern Syria, Israel has conducted ten—now eleven—major strikes into Syria, and a number of smaller ones plus some targeted assassinations. It is agreed that Israel struck at least ten sites on Sunday, and that she struck around Damascus International Airport and in the town of Dimas, near the Lebanese border. A warehouse of long-range missiles was destroyed, according to SOHR, and these weapons were probably about to be shipped to the Hizballah, the Lebanese branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp. There is every reason to think that the other sites hit were Iran-linked. Some reports said the missiles were advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles (S-300s). One report even suggests that it was the Russian Foreign Minister’s promise of weapons to the Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, which triggered the Israeli strikes.
Assuming it was S-300s that were hit, Assad could not afford these weapons on his own, but Iran could purchase them for him from Russia. Iran has already been given assurances by President Obama that Assad will not be targeted as the U.S. launches airstrikes inside Syria against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, making the U.S. effectively Assad’s air force, freeing him up to destroy the nationalist rebels, but perhaps the Assad/Iran regime wished to make doubly sure. Given how deeply involved Russia is on the ground inside Syria in helping the dictatorship with its campaign of atrocity against a population in revolt, the S-300s would be a further sign that the emerging Iran-Russia alliance, explicitly based on opposing the West, was gaining strength—and that Israel was determined to thwart it. Russia’s involvement in Syria has involved inter alia spying on Israel, information there is every reason to think is handed on to Tehran.
There were social media reports that some of the Israeli strikes had hit in Quneitra (a.k.a. the Golan Heights), specifically targeting the regime’s Brigade Base 90. This is as yet unverified, but if it was true it would underline this second trend, which is Israel’s direct support to the rebel forces in southern Syria.
In January 2014, Ehud Yaari wrote at The Washington Institute of “Israel’s Growing Role in Southern Syria“. In March 2013, Israel had begun providing medical treatment to Syrians. Israel had treated at least 600 Syrians by the time of Yaari’s article; that number now surpasses 1,500 and $10 million in cost. Israel was also providing “a whole range of items, from medications to food, fuel, clothes, heaters, and more,” plus a special military field hospital, which indicated a “system of communications and frequent contacts,” and this proved correct.
In July, Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, kidnapped Sharif as-Safouri, the commander of the FSA-branded Liwa al-Haramein. A report in the Times of Israel in August noted that Safouri had been made to give a video “confession” to Nusra, which had included saying that he had “entered Israel five times to meet with Israeli officers who later provided him with Soviet anti-tank weapons and light arms.” Safouri went on to explain that the rebel groups “would receive support and send the injured [to Israel] on condition that the Israeli fence area is secured.” Safouri was given an Israeli mobile telephone, and his men were provided with “basic medical support and clothes,” as well as weapons, which included thirty Russian rifles, ten RPG launchers with 47 rockets, and 48,000 5.56 millimeter bullets. Safouri did not show obvious signs of torture but it is possible he was coerced. Further reports confirmed at least the non-lethal parts of Safouri’s version.
Assuming Safouri’s “confession” was true, at its most cynical it might be said that Israel was outsourcing her border security. But that doesn’t change the fact that Israel is providing medical assistance to the Syrian people and providing strategic cover of the rebellion’s rear, plus de facto immunity from unconventional weapons.
The news this week that Alois Brunner, one of the most wanted Nazi war criminals, had ended his days in Syria advising Assad on torture techniques, was a timely reminder of the kind of regime one is dealing with in Syria. More obliquely, it is a reminder that if Israel has any one purpose it is to ensure Jewish civilians are never again murdered with poison gas, so Assad would have to be positively suicidal to risk a chemical weapons strike near the Israeli border. Assad and his allies are well “[a]ware that Israel could topple the Assad regime if it deems it necessary“. The late Fouad Ajami once wrote that in a Syrian refugee camp in Antakya, many of the people reduced to misery by the Assad regime had “wondered aloud … about the prospect of the Israeli air force putting an end to the barbarism and the cruelty by reducing Bashar’s presidential palace and bunker to rubble.” Using weapons of mass destruction, specifically poison gas, even accidentally, against Israel’s civilians would have Israel fulfil this wistful desire.
When the rebellion broke out in Syria, the Israelis were divided. On the one hand, downing Assad was a blow to Iran’s regional standing, and perhaps a mortal one, critically weakening Iran’s proxies, the Hizballah and HAMAS, removing Iran’s ability to effectively attack Israel, and therefore giving Israel greater freedom to act, should she deem it necessary, against Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. On the other hand, the House of Assad had kept the quietest border for decades—even as Damascus was instrumental in setting ablaze the Lebanese frontier, the one that probably frightens Israel the most, where Iran has effectively bought itself a border with the “Zionist Entity”. Ultimately Israel sided against Assad.
One of President Obama’s many excuses for doing nothing to help the Syrians against the Assad/Iran regime was that it would be dangerous for Israel if Assad fell. In June 2011, after several press stories saying Israel favoured the continuation of the Assad regime, Israel’s then-ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren bluntly stated that he had denied this once, denied it again, condemned Assad’s cruelty, and added that Israel “fears that the devil we know in Syria is worse than the devil we don’t.” Indeed by May 2011, a full three months before President Obama’s all-but rescinded call for regime-change in Syria, the entire Israeli elite—President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—had called for Assad’s downfall. The fact is that if Israel did work actively working to bring down the regime it would be against stern opposition from an American administration that regards Syria as an Iranian sphere of influence.
A pillar of the Assad regime’s legitimacy has been its support for the Palestinian cause. But Assad followed the pattern of the other Arab tyrannies in adopting Palestine-as-cause while consigning Palestine-as-place and -people to ruin. Assad discouraged the Palestinians from compromise and encouraged them into confrontations they could not win; kept the Palestinian refugees and their descendants from 1948 in camps for propaganda purposes rather than allow them to integrate and restart their lives; and used “Palestine” to deflect from the regime’s failings, to excuse the fact Syria had neither democracy nor prosperity, by saying that all must wait until Syrian banners are unfurled over the Golan. Assad added a special piece of sadism to this by bombarding and starving to death the only Palestinians over whom he had any control. Syrians have been fed anti-Zionism for decades and told that Israel is the cause of all their ills. When Syrians put behind them this ruinous idea and make their accommodation with the reality that Israel is not going anywhere, then they will be truly free of the Assad regime.
In the meanwhile, while seemingly nobody—neither the Arabs nor Israelis—likes to admit it, Israel is acting on behalf of the whole opposition to the “Resistance Axis,” which includes not just States like Saudi Arabia and Turkey but the Syrian rebellion and—if the Obama administration can be dissuaded from its attempt to partner with Iran—the West, too. While President Obama has made the Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda the focus of his concerns in Syria, Israel recognises that Iran is the bigger threat, with its thousands of Shi’a jihadists in Syria tied into its global terrorist infrastructure and the attempt to arm the Hizballah with long-range missiles, altering the strategic balance of power in the region. HAMAS’ attempt to rocket the Dimona nuclear reactor in September gives a foretaste of the leverage Iran would have if the Hizballah, already equipped with a missile arsenal larger than most national armies, could hit all locations inside Israel. Israel, in other words, has prioritised maintaining “the regional balance of power and breaking the Iranian network,” as Tony Badran put it. The worry about chemical weapons falling into the hands of Islamists that is apparently among the things that has stayed Obama’s hand in bringing down Assad is a legitimate fear, but to focus on that and lose sight of the fact that an Islamist regime—with the full apparatus of State power and a global terrorist network—is using Syria to buttress its bid for nuclear weapons is truly to “win the battle and lose the war“.