By Gedalyah Reback
Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, Israel has tried to maintain a neutral policy – Israel’s engagement with Hezbollah and Iran gets a lot more coverage than its engagement with Sunni Islamist groups like Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.
But Israel has been involved in skirmishes with jihadist rebels. In 2014, Israel laid cover fire in the form of an artillery barrage against Islamist rebels who had pinned down a number of Irish UN peacekeepers in the combat zone. Israeli artillery covered the Irish troops’ escape to the Israeli side of the border.
There have been hints of Israeli links to Syrian rebel groups, likely for the sake of limiting or eliminating Hezbollah’s presence along the Israeli border.
Last October, Ehud Yaari of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that “in particular, the southern governorates of Quneitra and Deraa could become either the latest territories captured by radical forces — namely the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) — or a safe haven for non-Islamist rebel groups, some of which maintain contacts with Israel.”
For years, that speculation has largely centered on Israeli links to the Free Syrian Army, the most prominent secular opposition to Bashar al-Assad. There have been rumors at the same time that Israel has been working with more Islamic groups also. Those rumors also extend to Jordan.
Neither country is necessarily thrilled with this arrangement, but the strategic thinking right now is that Syria represents Iranian influence, which is the greater threat. This is certainly the view among many Israeli security experts, who see things like the rise of ISIS as a mixed blessing in that it could hamper Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the region.
ISIS, it should be noted, is still not unified with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) who are associated with Al Qaeda. Yet for all the smaller terrorist groups that have taken root in Syria, the line between independent operations and pledging allegiance to ISIS can be very thin.
Israeli observers were apparently shocked by the unforeseen allegiance of the Shuhada al-Yarmouk Brigades to ISIS, having previously been associated with the Free Syrian Army. Al-Nusra assassinated al-Yarmouk’s Mousab Ali Karfan (nom de guerre Mousab Zaytouneh) in mid-December, possibly based on the accusation he had made the alliance himself.
Al-Yarmouk had retained control of a large chunk of the border region with Israel, but their switch made things strategically untenable.
There is also some degree of domestic pressure in Israel according to Professor John Myhill, a linguist at Haifa University who has worked extensively with Israeli Druze in recent years.
“November or December of last year the Druze in Suwayda (Jabal al-Druze) were thrown into battle against Al-Nusra. The Israeli Druze community knows that the Sunni groups in Syria are fighting the non-Sunnis in the same way – by massacring them. That is why Israeli Druze (including in the Golan) get very upset with the photo ops of the IDF with the rebels” Myhill says, referring to photos of Israeli leaders with Syrian wounded being treated in the Golan.
Druze are typically presented as prioritizing their residing country more than their brethren in the other Arab states, but that is an exaggeration. There have been efforts by local Druze leaders to lobby the Israeli government to protect Druze in southern Syria who have come under attack from Al Qaeda affiliates there.
“Druze have known for a while that the humanitarian assistance is going exclusively to rebels and not to the Syrian Army. After there was an incident where 20 Druze were killed last year, Israeli Druze set up a committee.”
In November 2014, that Druze group released a harsh statement against what they perceived was too friendly a policy to Syrian rebel groups:
“As we warned in the past, today it has become a fact that Israel supports all factions fighting the Syrian regime, and supplies them with weapons, and takes in the wounded of all faction, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh (ISIS),” according to the statement issued by the group. “We call on members of the Druze sect to act severely toward Israel’s policy.”
It should be noted that there is no evidence Israel has supplied weapons to any rebel faction, Islamist or otherwise.
But according to Myhill, the lobbying efforts have paid off and caused a radical change in how Al-Nusra approaches the Druze communities of al-Suwayda.
Myhill retains contacts over the border in Jordan. On January 1st, according to those contacts, a number of Israeli and Jordanian intelligence officials flew into Syria via helicopter. Within weeks, attacks against the Druze apparently dissipated, indicating the Israelis and the Jordanians possibly demanded the rebels cease their attacks on Druze in and around Suwayda.
According to Myhill, Israeli Druze were receiving better news from family in Syria.
“The government was taking the Druze issue seriously (at that point) and the situation there had completely changed. They weren’t going into Druze villages at all by the end of January.”
When asked if Israel should weigh as heavily an alliance with Syria’s Druze as he has advocated it consider investing in the Alawites, Myhill said that it was less likely the Druze could deploy as extensively as any of the Islamist groups or the Syrian army.
”Suwayda / Jabal al-Druze is not linked to the Golan. There are no Druze in the area [between Suwayda and the Golan] and they would have to kick out all the Sunnis by the border in order to hold it.” He said that Druze would not be as willing as the Alawite-majority Syrian army to go on such an ethnic cleansing operation, at the least because it did not have the capability.
There have also been recent reports that Iran wants Druze to form their own militia, possibly making an alliance with Israel at any moment soon a mute matter. The reports also claim Hezbollah advisers are leading the training. It is unclear what sort of success that effort would be, or if such a militia might become a permanent part of Druze security in southern Syria.
The Druze are by no means marching behind Bashar al-Assad.
There have been raids on Syrian Army recruiting stations in Suwayda where locals broke Druze recruits out who had been arrested and sent them into hiding. This might also represent the fact that Alawites might be in a better position to maintain their sect’s security than the Druze are.
While Assad has presented his government as the best option to protect minorities from Islamists, Myhill says that any “Non-Alawites of significance in the regime are either 1) yes-men who serve as figureheads or 2) from the about 2 million or so crypto-Alawites in the country.”