With the attention of the world’s media rightfully focused on Russia’s bombing of Aleppo, and with the general carnage of the war in Syria, it is easy to forget what Israel and the West are up to in the country.
The war in Syria is multifaceted, complex and, above all, violent on a scale unprecedented in the region. Western powers have been deeply involved in instigating and exacerbating the conflict, fuelling the rise of some of the most deeply reactionary and violent rebel groups.
The British government, for example, has poured millions of pounds into plush propaganda efforts aimed at boosting the flagging rebel war effort. An investigation by the Guardian in May found that contractors hired by the Foreign Office, but overseen by the Ministry of Defence, produce “videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups, and effectively run a press office for opposition fighters.”
Although the government claims that these efforts are focused only on “moderate armed opposition” groups, documents seen by the Guardian suggest otherwise. Militias involved in kidnapping and summary executions are among those documented as being supported by these well-funded British propaganda efforts. British military support to “moderate rebels” has gone so far as indirect support for Al-Qaeda in Syria, a BBC Radio 4 investigation by the brilliant journalist Peter Oborne showed last year.
Another example of this Western support for extremist anti-government militias in Syria came in July, with the publication on social media of a shocking beheading video. The group Nour Al-din Al-Zenki appeared with a young captive they said was a child and whom they alleged was part of a pro-government Palestinian militia. They then proceeded to execute him. The video caused an outcry, but it was not long before it emerged that the group had been armed by the US with, among other weapons, anti-tank missiles.
Astonishingly, when questioned about this, a State Department spokesperson refused to commit to ending US support for the group, only going so far as to say that the report, if confirmed, would “give us pause about any assistance” to the group, and that the US may “look at” any “affiliation or cooperation with this group we may have going forward.” In this context, it is not surprising to find that Israel too has been supporting anti-government armed groups in Syria.
Crucially, Western support for the rebels has not been unequivocal. While there is no doubt that millions of pounds, dollars, Euros, dinars and Lira have gone into efforts to overthrow the government of Bashar Al-Assad, the support has never been quite enough to overthrow him outright. Many analysts put this down to muddled thinking and equivocation on the part of the Obama administration, whom they often accuse of “inaction” in Syria. However, this analysis assumes – wrongly – good intentions on the part of the US imperial power, and ignores the very real possibility that western planners may be quite happy for the chaos and bloodshed to continue in Syria.
Such analyses miss what could be termed the Kissinger Doctrine; the idea of wanting both sides to lose. While the US may speak publicly about aiding only “moderate rebels”, the brutal reality of the Syrian war is that the dynamic has long been on the side of the most extreme, violent and fundamentalist armed groups. As such, the West and Israel are not supporting Al-Qaeda-linked groups out of some ideological affiliation. Rather it is a cynical move which attempts to use one enemy against another, with no regard for the fate of Syrian civilians trapped between the combatants.
Israel for one is perfectly happy for civil war to continue in Syria for as long as possible. As veteran Israeli security correspondent Alex Fishman confirmed last year, the official Israel military policy in Syria has been to “let them bleed.” While the war continues, Syria will be weakened as both a regional power and an independent state. Its weakening will render it less able to aid Israel’s enemies, such as Iran and Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah, or so the theory goes.
Another benefit of the war in Syria from Israel’s perspective is that it helps to shore-up its longstanding military occupation of the Golan Heights, a region of south-western Syria that the Israelis have colonised illegally for 50 years.
House demolitions of Syrian homes in the Golan at the hands of the Israeli occupation regime have increased this year, under the cover of the war in Syria. Some 140,000 Syrians were expelled from the Golan in 1967, or fled under threat of Israeli violence, and have never been permitted to return. Now, only about 20,000 Syrians remain, alongside an equal number of illegal Israeli settlers.
While we can only hope that the current ceasefire in Aleppo will last, and will be extended to other parts of Syria, as long as outside powers on all sides continue to intervene this seems a forlorn hope.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.