Key words: Syria, Iran, Russia, Israel, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al-Qaeda
By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai
Former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon says the “Islamic State” (ISIS) had fired at Israel once, but immediately apologised for the shooting.
It seems many Israelis have learned to live with ISIS as a new neighbour: “Extremists are fighting other Syrian factions while Israel is focused on the danger from Iran.”
There is no doubt that Iran is present – with its allies including the Lebanese Hezbollah – firmly on the entire Syrian territory, and bestows great importance to the southern border with Israel. Its ideological and political objectives are oriented towards supporting the Palestinian cause and most groups or organisations that want to “liberate their land or fight against the oppressor”. This section, in Iran, falls under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard- Al Quds brigade(the Jerusalem Brigade) headed by General Qassem Soleimani. Under Soleimani’s jurisdiction falls the management and full support (finance, military and intelligence) of organisations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and including Palestine.
The south of Syria attracts special attention towards its geopolitical peculiarity where Israel is eying an addition “buffer zone” to the already occupied Golan heights, supported by the new US administration. The Syrian south is an extension of southern Lebanon: from Naqoura to Marbaka, Kafarkala, Ghajar, Kafrshuba, until reaching the Shebaa Farms where the Syrian territory begins. The Israeli occupied territories give legitimacy to Syria (and specially now after the war years) and to its allies – at the request of the central government in Damascus – to prepare for elite forces that mirror the elite and well trained and experienced Radwan forces in Hezbollah (Ridwan forces regained the control of Homs, around Damascus, Aleppo and operate in most hot areas in Syria). Moreover, Iran has formed 7 brigades and other forces under different religious names. These ended more than eighteen months of intense training and participation in multiple wars in Syria, acquiring distinctive military experience. They have practicedwarfare throughout the years, dealt with artillery cover and preliminary jet bombing, attacked irregular forces but enjoying advanced fighting knowledge and capability. They have also engaged in many locations and battles against the well-experienced militants of “Al-Qaeda” (Hay’at Fatah al-Sham).
Field commanders who participated in many battles against the jihadists speak highly of Al-Qaeda’s determination and excellent training on most fronts and particularly in al-Eiss and during “the battle to lift the siege of the city of Aleppo”.
These commanders say that al-Qaeda is a stubborn, intelligent and expert opponent. Its militants do not easily retreat from their positions unless all means of victory and resistance are closed. On the other hand, ISIS relies only on vehicle born improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), suicide attacks and snipers. They are no match for al-Qaeda, say field commanders who fought against both groups in Syria.
Al-Qaeda in Syria uses remote-controlled drones, booby-trapped vehicles, suicide attacks, pre-bombardment and proper systematic military advancements according to thoughtful tactical plans. They are considered the most dangerous fighters on Syrian soil because of their experience mixed with their lack of fear of death, holding a strong ideology, advanced manoeuvring techniques, including the ability to occupy a position regardless of the losses.
Iran looked after the “Hezbollah Syria group” and other more organisations aiming at fighting the enemies of the Syrian government, including Israel. The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is convinced that the occupied Golan will not be returned through peace negotiations but, like Lebanon, by the use of guerrilla attacks. Syria may be in a better position to fight against Israel than a Lebanon divided between those who have declared animosity towards Israel and those who do not want Hezbollah to continue its armed struggle and want to reconcile with Israel to join the other countries of the region that are beginning to show their “privileged” relationship with Tel Aviv.
If Assad is destined to remain in power or even be replaced by another President, the hostility towards Israel may not shift, regardless of the few direct contacts that take place between some opponents of the regime, (with insignificant representation on the ground,) and Israeli officials.
Yes, this is of particular concern to Israel, especially since the arms depots targeted by Israeli jets and missiles at Damascus airport are mostly not destined for the Lebanese Hezbollah but for other local organisations. Hezbollah already suffers from a “deluge” of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles of short, medium, and long range, anti-ship missiles, armed drones, anti-air defence systems and laser guided missiles. Hezbollah is even developing weapons domestically according to the type of the battle to possibly engage against Israel in the future.
And yes, this worries Israel because these “non-state” organisations are supported, trained and supplied by a state. These benefit from the training and experience sharing with Iran and Iranian proxies who fought for over 30 years against Israel and gathered enough knowledge on the enemy style of operation. Of course, the struggle of “brains” between Hezbollah and Israel never stops.
And yes, this worries Israel because these organisations have more experience than ISIS even if the Salafi extremist organisation came from the womb of “Al Qaeda”. Of course, the same Al-Qaeda – before the war in Syria – never had drones, laser guided missiles, oran army of thousands of militants gathered in one single place when it was engaged in guerrilla warfare. But today, in Syria, al-Qaeda is much more experienced, (yet not at the level of Hezbollah).
What Israel is unaware of is the fact that al-Qaeda has changed its policy in Syria to become more flexible – under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Julani – and is working on slow empowerment (Tamqeen) and accepts even sending its militants to Israeli hospitals. This move does not mean that Israel has become an ally of al-Qaeda or a friend of ISIS. These organisations operate by priority, like most jihadists ideological organisations. For example, the priority of ISIS is the “near enemy”, occupying the largest territory possible and kilingl the Shia before heading towards Israel. Ayman al-Zawaheri himself warned the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to avoid killing shia in Iraq and to concentrate on attacking the US forces, saying: “Do you know anyone in the history of Islam who managed to exterminate all the Shia”? Zawaheri forgot that there is no opinion to be given for those who do not obey.
Al Qaeda has a military and a political project, is trying to control more territory, and trying to live with other religions or beliefs (for the time being), creating alliances according its needs.
The dispute over the Syrian south has reached a severe stage among the holders of a strong ideology. Israel is taking a tactical advantage from the Sunni-Shiite conflict and therefore the Hezbollah’s struggle against al-Qaeda. But Tel Aviv’s turn is only postponed and its forthcoming troubles are yet to begin.
Conflicts have reached their peak in the Syrian south, where solutions remain elusive. Today, Donald Trump has given the authority in Syria and Iraq to the generals in the Pentagon to decide how many troops they need for their plans in the Levant and Mesopotamia. Thus, America – like Israel – is governed by the military, not by the governments who apparently lead their states. All military options are therefore on the table, making the situation in the Middle East more dangerous than ever. Syria remains a hotbed of conflict even after six years of non-stop war.