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Israel and the Syrian jihad

By Marika Sosnowski - posted Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The state of Israel is facing a conundrum in Syria. One issue is Israel's red line policy that no chemical or advanced weapons fall into Hezbollah's hands while preventing a conflict arising between Israel and Assad. The other is the growing influence and military prowess of jihadists within the Syrian opposition, particularly in the Golan region, that Israel's red line policy inadvertently supports.

The conundrum is this - while foiling weapons transfers to Hezbollah means tacit support for the armed Syrian opposition, large and influential swathes of the Syrian opposition are becoming increasingly ideologically extreme, and that is not to Israel's benefit either.

Since the beginning of the year, Israel has launched a number of military strikes into Syria both in response to shells fired from Syrian territory into the occupied Golan and because of fears that Syrian or Iranian weapons, including chemical ones, could fall into the hands of Hezbollah.


Over the weekend Israel launched two such strikes. The first was on what Israel claimed was a "game-changing" cache of weapons intended for Hezbollah. The second was on a military facility (a base or a military research centre) on the outskirts of Damascus also to prevent the shipment of something like Fateh-110 or Scud D surface-to-surface missiles from Iran to its Lebanese ally. Scud D missiles have great destructive capabilities and a range that covers all of Israel, from deep inside Lebanon down to Eilat. But preventing such weapons from reaching Hezbollah entails the risk of retaliation from Assad.

Luckily for Israel, at present it appears that Assad is preoccupied by the internal conflict. Assad's incentive for providing weapons to Hezbollah is the Shi'ite organisation's support for the regime's battle against the opposition. Practically, this translates to nearly 2,000 Lebanese soldiers fighting in Syrian battles and assisting in securing strategic locations.However, dynamics in the Middle East change quickly and if Assad could see a strategic use for provoking Israel to join the fray within Syria, such as destabilising the opposition, he would not need to look hard for an excuse.

On the other side of the coin, Israel's hindrance of Hezbollah and Assad by default helps the Syrian opposition. The problem is that this help has unintentionally meant increased jihadi control, amongst other things, of Syrian border areas that could be a harbinger of additional trouble ahead for Israel.

Global jihadists, such as members of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front that includes the al-Qaida affiliated Jubhat al Nusra, have been moving into the Golan border region as the Assad regime's army, increasingly pressed for manpower on other fronts, has withdrawn. The presence of Islamic extremists in this area risks major escalation of a regional conflict. Cross-border fire from groups committed to destroying the state of Israel and ridding the region of any Jews could easily spiral into a major skirmish particularly if the opposition got its hands on some chemical weapons. An even larger Israeli intervention to set up a buffer zone in Syria is also a real possibility.

The United Nations peacekeeping force that has monitored and patrolled the Golan since 1974 has also come under increasing pressure. Over the past six months, Austrian peacekeepers have been wounded, Japan and Croatia have withdrawn military support and 21 Filipino troops were ambushed and kidnapped by Syrian rebels calling themselves the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. They were later released unharmed after three days but the UN's presence and its ability to intervene in any military escalation is tenuous.

Since its deployment in 1974, the UN peacekeeping force has helped Syria and Israel preserve a status quo that suited both sides. But as the stability that the UN represented erodes, some security analysts fear that the border may turn "hot" and jihadists could challenge Israel in order to provoke retaliation – a dynamic not dissimilar to Lebanon. But the risks of Israel taking action against the Syrian opposition (that it is inadvertently supporting) to secure the Golan would be immense. One western diplomat said such a move would be resisted by the international community and could draw Israel into a military quagmire with either the Assad regime, jihadists or potentially both.


Israel currently faces a Catch 22 in Syria. It stands by a red line policy that vows to prevent "game-changing" weapons transfers to Hezbollah, however the weakening of Hezbollah supports the Syrian opposition which is increasingly hostile to the Jewish state. It also seems both Assad and the opposition are in a position to provoke further Israeli involvement in the Syrian conflict at a time of their own strategic choosing. Israel will have to act wisely over the coming months in order to avoid being dragged into the Syrian mayhem.

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About the Author

Marika Sosnowski currently works at the Jewish Museum of Australia and has taught Middle East politics at Monash, Melbourne and La Trobe Universities. She has just finished a season hosting a show about the Middle East on community radio.

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