Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Syria: A quagmire of interests - Dr. Yehuda Balanga

by Dr. Yehuda Balanga

If [Hezbollah] indeed manages to entrench itself in Syria and accomplish its goal of conquering Quneitra (situated near the Israeli border) from the rebels, the threat level to Israel will increase along three parameters.

Ever since the uprising in Syria began four years ago, the border area with Israel has been exceedingly volatile, carrying with it the potential to drag multiple players into the violent fray. The arrival of the Islamic State group on the scene along with the actions of the Nusra Front (initially under the IS umbrella but now a rival), completely altered both Israel's deployment on the border and the Syrian regime and its allies' need to respond to the burgeoning Islamist threat. At this juncture, Iran and Hezbollah entered the picture. 

In the first year of the Syrian conflict, Iran and Hezbollah refrained from intervening. Since July of 2012, however, after the Assad regime suffered a major blow in the deadly bombing attack at Syrian National Security Headquarters in Damascus, the regime in Tehran and Hezbollah became increasingly involved. For them, the survival of Syrian President Bashar Assad was of critical importance, due to Syria playing a vital strategic role in the "axis of resistance" and providing Iran with a foothold further afield in the Middle East and greater influence. That being the case, thousands of fighters quickly began crossing the border from Lebanon into Syria, including members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, to defend the Assad regime.

The fall of the city of Quneitra to a coalition of rebel groups, headed by the Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army, sparked two important countermeasures taken by the Assad regime and its allies. First, a combined Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah force was formed to retake the city; an effort that until now has been only partially successful. Secondly, the threat posed by the Nusra Front, representing the long arm of al-Qaida, has been exploited to garner the support of the minorities in the Quneitra area specifically and across southern Syria in general. Thus, looking to survive and sharing the fear of the radical Sunni Islamist threat, Christians and Druze received training from Hezbollah and Iran and began fighting alongside Syrian soldiers against the rebels.

The primary consequence of these developments for Israel is that for the first time in the ongoing conflict with Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group has a presence on another front, in Syria, beyond its traditional arena of operations in Lebanon. If it indeed manages to entrench itself in Syria and accomplish its goal of conquering Quneitra (situated near the Israeli border) from the rebels, the threat level to Israel will increase along three parameters. One, Hezbollah will expand its intelligence gathering capabilities against the IDF and Israeli communities on the strategic Golan Heights. Two, it will attempt to upgrade its ability to threaten Israeli civilians by extending its rocket launching threat to this arena. Three, it will try recruiting fighters from the minority population in Israel -- Druze, Palestinians and Arab Israelis -- to form another arm with which to carry out terrorist attacks inside Israel. The tangible proof of this is that two of the four terrorists killed in an air force strike near the border fence on Sunday were members of a large family from Majdal Shams, an Israeli Druze town near the Syrian border known for its loyalty to the Assad regime.

However, as stated, it is not just Hezbollah that poses a threat to Israel, but also the combustible reality of a rebel presence on the Golan Heights. Ultimately, these rebels are a coalition of forces comprised of various terrorist groups, which see Israel as one of several future targets. 

Nusra Front fighters, on more than one occasion, have revealed their intent by standing in view of the Israeli border while shooting into the air. Meanwhile, the following scenario could also unfold: In a situation of distress due to the ongoing fighting with the Syrian army and Hezbollah, the rebels could seek to perpetrate a terrorist attack on the Israeli border in an attempt to drag the IDF into a war with the Syrian sovereign -- in other words, with Assad and his Hezbollah ally. The knowledge that only the IDF is strong enough to stop Hezbollah, and according to many assessments, to also deliver a fatal blow to the Assad regime and expedite its downfall, is a central component in the array of considerations being weighed by the rebels, radical Islamists and seculars alike. 

Dr. Yehuda Balanga teaches in Bar-Ilan University's Middle Eastern Studies Department and is a research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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