With Syria bordering the Golan Heights, Israel’s most quiet frontier for the last 40 years, the Israeli government is reasonably concerned with Syria’s future in the face of its growing terrorist insurgency.
Prof. Assaf Moghadam, Academic Director at the ICT, explains that any instability in Syria threatens Israeli security, but groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS pose no immediate concern to Israel. Brig. Gen. (Res.) Nitzan Nuriel furthers this statement by saying that organizations like ISIS are not among Israel’s top security priorities. Although Israel wants to maintain a quiet border and is doing so by strengthening its forces in the Golan Heights as well as increasing cooperation with factions on the Syrian whose interests coincide with those of Israel, the Israeli military views groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra as being caught up in their own internal struggle within Syria to maintain dominance and gain territory, preventing it from attacking Israel. Yet, as Prof. Moghadam adds, these groups’ jihadi Salafist ideology creates a long-term issue for Israel, as they see Israel as a primary enemy, along with the West and other secular Arab regimes.
Mr. Bassam Eid, a Palestinian affairs analyst for Voice of Israel and the founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, accuses the international community of turning a blind eye to the conflict in Syria. Brig. Gen. (Res.) Nuriel believes, however, that the international community is ignoring the Syrian conflict in large part to avoid interfering in regional religious instability. With Western knowledge of Islamic sects being limited, if the West were to intercede on the side of any one of the groups fighting in Syria, it would inadvertently be supporting which Islamic sect, either Sunni or Shiite, would dominate the Middle East at a time while the region remains volatile.
Prof. Moghadam echoes his colleague’s sentiments and inserts the West, namely the U.S.A, is fatigued with war in the Middle East. Years of fighting Islamic extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia have made Western powers weary of engaging further in Middle Eastern conflicts. According to Prof. Moghadam, only once these countries see the direct impact of the conflict, most likely from foreign fighters returning from these jihadi arenas to their home countries to carry out terror attacks, will they intensify their efforts in stopping the Syrian conflict. Moreover, Mr. Eid condemns Arab leaders for not helping their fellows Syrian Arabs through strong and unified military action. The Arab League, according to Mr. Eid, is a “center for handicap people” void of solid, meaningful leadership.
When asked how Israel and the West are trying to curb the impact of the various jihadi groups in Syria, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Nuriel states that it is difficult to pinpoint an exact strategy when no group, whether rebel, jihadist, or regime-oriented holds any true legitimacy within Syria. Mr. Eid agrees with this theory, adding that the terrorist groups are fighting each other rather than old enemies, such as Israel. There will be a continued stalemate for sometime in Syria especially while moderate rebels, who might be funded by Western powers, remain poorly organized and hard to vet.
Prof. Moghadam adds that traditional deterrence strategy is not a functioning policy, as these terrorist groups, in many cases, are more than terrorist organizations, but rather semi-state, political actors, with armed militias and social sectors aimed at improving civilian livelihood. Looking at semi-state terror groups such as Hezbollah that are operating in the Syrian theater, Israel cannot outright deter their Syrian actions, though it can maintain stiff security and military activities aimed at stifling Hezbollah activity in southern Lebanon. Specifically in regards to Hezbollah, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Nuriel sees the group’s activities in Syria as weak, and simply a proxy for Iran in the place of Bashar Assad’s weaker army, while Prof. Moghadam foresees ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in the end gaining more power and prestige due to their actual stake in the conflict.
Mr. Eid closes the discussion in talking about the Palestinian reaction to the conflict in Syria. The Syrian government, in his opinion, abandoned the Palestinian people at the onset of the revolution, which was in contradiction to its once open and strong support of Palestinian groups, such as Hamas. Now, the regime creates issues with the Palestinians, stirring internal conflict within places such as the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, near Damascus. Palestinians today in the West Bank, overall, are aware of the strife in the rest of the region and prefer compare their situation in Israel, seeing Israel as a stable, secure country. They are afraid of this situation changing and for that reason the Palestinian Authority cooperates with Israel in terms of security. Once the cauldron of terror, as host Mr. Dan Diker states, Israel has become the anchor of stability in this unpredictable region.