Israeli military support for Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate and an attempt to derail talks on Iran's nuclear programme may be behind Israel's latest attacks in Syria writes Joshua Tartakovsky
The north of Israel is heating up once again and a cycle of renewed fighting between Israel and Hezbollah seems once again likely.
On January 18, in an attack attributed to Israel carried out by a helicopter, six fighters of Hezbollah and an Iranian general were killed. The attack took place in Quneitra, Syria, not far from the border between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Of the seven killed, two were well-known: Jihad Mughniyeh, son of the esteemed Hezbollah commander, Imad Mughniyeh (who himself was killed by a joint operation of Israel and the US two years ago), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard general, Mohammed Ali Allahdadi.
In response to the bombing, Hezbollah fighters attacked an Israeli military convoy of three cars with anti-tank missiles. The attack took place in Shebba Farms, a strip of land that Israel annexed in 1981 and which Hezbollah claims is occupied Lebanese territory.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack. In response, Israel practiced its long-held tradition of collective punishment and of considering any attack that takes place from Lebanon as one for which the Lebanese government is directly responsible. It retaliated by shelling neighboring Lebanese villages indiscriminately and killed a Spanish UN Peacekeeper. While Israel had increased the of its Iron Dome launchers, it failed to prevent the attack that took place from a very near range.
Indeed, Hezbollah, a Shiite military organization that evolved in Lebanon following the Lebanese Civil War and Israel’s 18 years long occupation of South Lebanon, has demonstrated in its conflicts with Israel superior military ability unmatched by any other Arab or Palestinian group. It has an expansive network of hospitals and schools, a TV channel and media outlets, and significantly, a vast number of sophisticated missiles, which Israel has failed to destroy during the 2006 war. Supported financially by Iran and aided by Syria, its well-trained fighters enjoy the popular support of many villages in South Lebanon including Christians and Sunni Muslims who are proud of the fact that it poses a significant military challenge to Israel and renders a future prospect of Israel occupying South Lebanon far from smooth.
For almost four years, Hezbollah militants have been fighting rebel groups in Syria, such as al Nusra Front, an off-shoot of al Qaeda, that seek to topple the secular regime of President Bashar al Assad. Israel had in its turn, provided medical treatment to wounded Syrians in a field hospital located in the occupied Golan Heights. Israel officially claims that it treats whoever is wounded and does not check whether he belongs to the Syrian Arab Army or to al Nusra. However, it is highly unlikely that Syrian soldiers would seek medical treatment in Israel, as they can receive treatment in their own country.
More significantly, a report issued by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon from the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in Syria and the Golan Heights, stated that observers witnessed on a regular basis Israeli cars crossing into the demilitarized zones and Israeli military personnel meeting with fighters of al Nusra. The report stated that
“throughout the reporting period, UNDOF frequently observed armed members of the opposition interacting with IDF across the ceasefire line in the vicinity of United Nations position 85.”
Observers also witnessed Israelis handing over boxes to Syrian rebels. The first encounter was witnessed in March 2013. The UN was probably not too pleased with the meetings held, considering the fact that al Nusra kidnapped UN personnel in the past. Israel received about 1,000 fighters in four different hospitals so far. The hospitalized included not only members of al Nusra but also of the Islamic State. A photograph of an encounter between the Israeli Minister of Defense, Moshe Yaalon, and a veiled Islamic woman in an Israeli hospital clearly demonstrates that Israel has no qualms aiding Islamists, even as its leaders warn of the threat posed by fanatical organizations such as the Islamic State.
Israel’s support to jihadist fighters is probably not limited to merely medical treatment. There are reports of Israel providing communication and medical equipment as well as intelligence on the Syrian army whereabouts, to al Nusra and the rebel Free Syrian Army. According to a fighter who participated in a battle for Qunteira held by al Nusra in September, the Israeli army provided the al Nusra commander with maps of Syrian army locations. Furthermore, while al Nusra fighters launched ground attacks against the Syrian Army, Israel assisted by bombing posts of the Syrian army from above and downing a Syrian airplane.
In the battle which took place in October 4, 2014 during which al Nusra took over Tal al-Hara, northwest of Daraa, Israel played a significant role. According to an anonymous participant fighter:
“Israeli support in the battle of Tal al-Hara was at a high level, and the Israeli army was the mastermind of this battle in terms of plans, tactics and follow-up. The communication devices released precise instructions in Arabic about what should be done by the fighters, moment by moment.”
Israel bombed a sophisticated radar post of the Syrian Army in Tal al-Hara in September, as this allowed the Syrians to monitor developments inside Israel. A month later, the same area was captured by al Nusra. The testimony of the fighter may be put in doubt but that Israel physically attacked an area at the same time that al Nusra engaged in a ground attack, appears to be more than a coincidence.
A senior Israeli officer told the Jerusalem Post that despite the fact that al Nusra has taken over of Quneitra, located near the Israeli border, al Nusra has no plans to attack Israel. The senior officer also added that there is no ideological difference between al Nusra and the Islamic State. It appears, however, that Israel has a strong interest not only in the defeat of the Syrian Army but also in weakening the presence of the UN in the Golan Heights, as areas which were vacated by the UN on the Syrian side have now been taken over by al Nusra.
How is one to interpret the latest alleged Israeli bombing of Hezbollah fighters in Syria which has escalated tensions between Israel and Hezbollah which supposedly neither side would have an interest in?
It is highly unlikely that Hezbollah fighters in Syria were conspiring to attack Israel. Not only are their hands full with fighting al Nusra and the Islamic State, but any attack on Israel from Syria could be used by Israel as a justification to attack Syrian Army bases or even Damascus, a response Hezbollah would have no interest in. Indeed, Hezbollah has not launched attacks against Israel from Syria in the past, as this would have given Israel an excuse to weaken President Assad, since Syria would have been held responsible of Hezbollah’s actions.
The bombing, if conducted by Israel, can be perhaps explained by the fact that Hezbollah has been gaining ground in its fight against al Nusra, to a degree that forced Israel to intervene. Assad had argued recently that Israel’s alliance with al Nusra is leading it to take aggressive steps to protect victories of the latter. According to Assad, the Israelis “are supporting the rebels in Syria. It's very clear." "Because whenever we make advances in some place, they make an attack in order to undermine the army.”
The explanation that Israel attacked in order to stop Hezbollah in its tracks is not wholly convincing. One may argue convincingly, that Israel would have to know that any attack on Hezbollah would not pass without a response, as the latter has a tradition of responding to every action committed against it by Israel. It would arguably not be in the interest of Israel to inflame the northern border after a period of calm.
However, this is not an ordinary time, but a pre-election period, in which Prime Minister Netanyahu is running for re-election in March 2015. It has often been the case that at times of war, the Israeli public is mobilized in favor of the government’s action and shows increased support for the sitting prime minister. Is Netanyahu seeking to cause a war at a time when he may be fearful of facing challenges from the public? Israel went to war prior to elections in the past. Operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza took place between 27 December 2008 and ended in 18 Januay 2009. Elections in Israel were held on 10 February 2009. In contrast, the 2006 war with Hezbollah took place between July 2006 and August 2006, after elections in March that year. There is no way to know if this is Netanyahu’s motivation, but it is clear that Hezbollah will not sit by quietly if attacked further.
In his recent speech on Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed that Israel was not worried about the existence of thousands of jihadists fighting for al Nusra but “was scared on January 18 of six unarmed Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian in civilian vehicles” and targeted them in what was a premediated attack. “We don’t want war but we are not afraid of going to war,” he said. “I think the Shebaa attack was a clear message… Israel was humiliated on Wednesday.” Nasrallah said that Hezbollah will retaliate when it deems appropriate and “no longer cares about the rules of engagement anymore.” This may mean that if Netanyahu sought to play his hand in order to gain public support, he would be faced by an ever-ready Hezbollah in a prolonged battle. Indeed, the fact that Hezbollah managed to attack Israeli soldiers near Lebanon despite the fact that it is busy fighting al Nusra in Syria, reveals that it is constantly prepared for a confrontation with Israel even when conditions on the ground may suggest that it is over-extended.
Similarly, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Mohammad Ali Jaffari, warned Israel against attacking Hezbollah since this would provoke a response. It appears that despite the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program being held in Vienna, Iran would not hesitate to support Hezbollah at a time of need. While traditionally Israel has always attempted to respond severley to any attack, now it may find itself in limbo, as responding harshly to Hezbollah’s response, could lead to a prolonged war. Israel’s latest war with Hamas in Gaza took place only recently, between July and August of 2014, and it is hard to imagine that Israel would be interested in another prolonged war with Hezbollah. But it should not be ruled out that Netanyahu would gain politically from such a war either. Netanyahu has argubly been fairly comfortable in war situations, in which the focus is on security rather than scoial issues.
In addition, it is possible that Israel is concerned about the talks between the US and Iran, and is seeking to derail Iran into a wider conflict by engaging Hezbollah, thereby postponing or preventing a US-Iran deal on its nuclear program. A Hezbollah-Israel mini-war would hamper the progress of talks between Iran and the US.
Targeting Hezbollah could have possibly served a number of purposes. The first is securing popular mobilization for Netanyahu at home. The second is attempting to prevent a US-Iran warm-up. The third is that Israel sought to weaken Hezbollah which may have been making gains against al Nusra. In any case, it is hard to imagine that Hezbollah in Syria was planning an attack against Israel. If Israel’s goal was to strengthen al Nusra and weaken Hezbollah, then its involvement in Syria is becoming increasingly transparent and more difficult to deny. Nasrallah made it clear, however, that if attacks continue, the response will be harsh. Israel may find itself facing a formidable enemy and regret stepping into such a situation in the first place.
What is certain, however, is that most Israelis are unaware of the degree of Israeli aid for al Nusra, and that a traumatized society is likely to fall back into voting for an incumbent leader who choses to take a tough stand during a time of war.
Joshua Tartakovsky is an Israeli-American independent journalist and a graduate of Brown University and LSE