A perennial PR theme of the Syrian regime since the civil war and uprising erupted in March 2011 was that the opposition was all Islamist extremists and Al-Qaeda, and that there were no secular or democratic forces involved in the uprising against the government.
On Monday, in an interview with Foreign Affairs magazine, Bashar Al-Assad reiterated this accusation. He also alleged Israel is helping Al-Qaeda in Syria. He said that some Syrians joke, semi-seriously: “How can you say that Al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force.” He claimed that periodic Israeli strikes on Syrian army positions all seemed well-timed to coincide with rebel offensives.
While claims that there are no legitimate grievances against the government should be dismissed, there is growing evidence that Israel may genuinely be working with the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
This is not as outlandish a claim as it may first appear. As I mentioned in my last column, Israel has long had a policy towards the Syrian civil war of letting “both [sides] bleed, haemorrhage to death” as one former official put it. In the same way that the US at different times armed both sides in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, western governments have an entirely cynical attitude to the war, and Israel is no exception to this.
While it’s true that the US, Europe and Israel have not been involved in arming the Assad regime (and indeed, have armed, trained and facilitated the fight of rebel groups against the government) neither do they seem too keen for the rebels to win an outright victory against Al-Assad. The preferred option seems to be for the civil war to continue for as long as possible, bleeding Al-Assad and Hezbollah: which have been implacable enemies of Israel.
But is there really evidence of Al-Nusra-Israel links?
In December, several rather low key media outlets summarised detailed reports from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), a peacekeeping force assigned since 1974 to separate Israeli and Syrian armies from each other in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights (illegally occupied since 1967).
UNDOF observed Israeli contact with armed rebels on the Syrian-controlled side of the ceasefire line on 59 occasions “particularly during periods of heavy engagement between the Syrian armed forces and members of the armed opposition” between March and May “transferring 89 wounded persons” to the Israeli army on the Israeli-occupied side and the Israelis in turn “handing over 19 treated and two deceased individuals to the armed members of the opposition” on the Syrian side (see the 10 June 2014 UNDOF report).
This UN report does not comment on the affiliation of the “armed opposition” personnel in question. Propaganda in the Israeli press in recent years has portrayed such contacts as merely humanitarian, and only connected to “moderate rebel groups”.
But in fact, the supposedly moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army (a term applied to anti-Assad rebel fighters) often fight alongside the Al-Nusra Front.
On 27 August, the FSA and Al-Nusra together fought off Syrian army forces and overtook the strategically important Quneitra crossing, between the Israeli-occupied and Syrian-controlled sections of the Golan Heights (Al-Nusra also kidnapped UN peacekeepers). That is approximately 25 kilometres north of Position 85, where UNDOF’s 10 June report stated it noticed regular contact between Israeli soldiers and rebel fighters.
In the same June report, UNDOF also stated that they observed Israeli soldiers “handing over two boxes to armed members of the opposition” from the Israeli-occupied side to the Syrian-controlled side.
The day after Al-Qaeda overran the Quneitra crossing in August, a 1 December UN report said: “UNDOF sporadically observed armed members of the opposition interacting with IDF [the Israeli military] across the ceasefire line in the vicinity of United Nations position 85.”
While this does not definitively prove Israel-Al-Qaeda links, it is strongly suggestive of them.
Soon after the kidnap of the peacekeepers, Inna Lazareva, a Telegraph (and Sunday Times) correspondent in Israel who has strong contacts with the Israeli security establishment, rather astonishingly, quoted one Israeli source (the former head of the “Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad” desk for Israel’s military) as mitigating for Al-Qaeda and playing down its bloodthirsty reputation.
“Jabhat Al-Nusra is not ISIL (ISIS) at all,” said Major Aviv Oreg, referring to the “Islamic State” group (an offshoot of Al-Qaeda that has more recently been involved in a turf war with the Al-Nusra Front, who it is almost entirely ideologically identical to).
The Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock reported: “There has been growing anecdotal evidence of interaction between Israel and rebel opposition groups, including Al-Nusra, that are operating close to the Golan Heights.”
Speaking to the Christian Science Monitor, an Israeli military spokesman did not deny UNDOF’s reports of contact with Syrian rebels.