by Prof. Eyal Zisser
Islamic State fighters are busy battling the Syrian regime, but also other rival rebel groups in the area, some of which have ties with Israel
The skirmish this week on the southern edge of the Syrian Golan Heights between the Israel Defense Forces and Islamic State terrorists is a reminder for anyone who forgot or ignored the fact that "Islamic State is already here," on Israel's northern border, and has been for over two years.
In December 2014, one of the rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime on the Golan Heights, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, swore allegiance to Islamic State. It has since joined forces with several other rebel groups, and in May 2016 it named this united force the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army. This force serves as Islamic State's southern arm in the border triangle between Israel, Jordan and Syria, in the southern Golan Heights. It controls a swathe of land spanning several hundred kilometers, where tens of thousands of people live.
Like Hezbollah, which maintains a presence in the northern sector of the Golan Heights, Islamic State in the southern sector is preoccupied with more pressing matters than opening a front against Israel. Islamic State fighters are busy battling the Syrian regime, but also other rival rebel groups in the area, some of which have ties with Israel. Thus, Islamic State has preferred to keep a low profile along the border and avoid adding Israel to its ever-growing list of enemies.
For Israel, however, it was always clear that an organization such as Islamic State would eventually exacerbate tensions along the border. After all, if the organization ends its other conflicts with the upper hand, it can turn its attention to Israel; but even if it loses, as is the case these days in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, then it looks to act against Israel in an attempt to win points and boost the waning morale among its supporters.
At this junction, it is unclear whether this week's incident with Islamic State was isolated, stemming from a decision or perhaps even errant judgment call by local commanders, or a new policy dictated from higher up. The IDF's harsh response, which included an airstrike on an Islamic State outpost, even if it was empty, was a clear message that Israel has no intention of being dragged into a fight with Islamic State, or into the civil war raging in Syria. At the same time, however, it will not come to terms with any attempts to disturb the quiet along the border.
The incident on the Golan Heights once again confronts Israel with the dilemma it has faced since the onset of the war in Syria. What will best serve Israeli interests: a victory for Assad or a victory for his enemies, Islamic State included? Perhaps Israel's best interest is for the war to continue, even if that means an Islamic State presence on the border.
However, the war in Syria could be headed toward a decision sooner than anticipated in Israel. In recent weeks, Assad and his allies, the Russians and Iranians, have made strides on the battlefield. They are on the verge of taking Aleppo, the country's second-largest city, and in other areas the rebels are giving up and surrendering territory to the Syrian regime.
Adding to this momentum is the refreshing new wind blowing from Washington, where President-elect Donald Trump has said that America must focus on defeating Islamic State, in conjunction with the Russians, rather than on toppling the Assad regime.
Prof. Eyal Zisser
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