Perhaps the most woefully under-covered fact of the war in Syria has been Israel’s role, and the fact that it has been supplying armed groups allied with Al-Qaeda.
The Golan Heights is a part of Syria that has been occupied illegally by Israel since 1967; the Zionist state annexed the territory in 1981. This colonial aggression is not recognised internationally.
The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) keeps track of violations of the ceasefire in the Golan Heights. UNDOF’s reports have for years now shown that Israel is in regular contact with armed rebel groups, including some in those areas which were at the time held by the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
Some of these reports have documented Israeli aid to these armed rebel groups. Although Israel has claimed publicly that the nature of the aid is “humanitarian”, it seems likely that at least some of it is military in nature. Israel’s official, stated, strategy in Syria is to “let both sides bleed” in order to prolong the war for as long as possible so as to weaken Syria and its allies, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran.
The latest UNDOF report confirms that Israeli aid to armed extremists in Syria is on the rise. “Relative to the previous reporting period,” it reads, “there has been a significant increase in interaction between” Israeli soldiers and “individuals from the Bravo side,” code for the ostensibly Syrian-controlled side of the ceasefire line. “UNDOF observed 16 interactions between” the Israeli army “and unknown individuals… occurring on four occasions in February, three in March, eight in April and on one occasion in May.”
The report documents how “unknown individuals, armed and unarmed, accompanied by mules, approached the [Israeli army] position and were met by and interacted with [Israeli army] personnel. In some instances, personnel and supplies were observed to have been transferred in both directions. On all occasions, the unknown individuals and mules returned to the Bravo side.”
Of course, the Bravo side is hotly contested in a three-way fight between Syrian government forces, armed rebel groups (including Al-Qaeda-aligned forces) and the “Islamic State” (Daesh), which has a small presence in the south of the buffer zone. The transfer of “personnel and supplies” is strongly indicative of Israel’s arming of rebel groups.
Recent press reports have revealed that Israeli involvement in Syria’s war and its attempt to increase its foothold in the Golan is even greater than previously thought. Israel is now attempting to create a full-scale “zone of influence” in southern Syria, complete with collaborating armed groups, akin to its proxy regime over southern Lebanon from the 1970s and 80s, until the Israel Defence Forces were driven out by Hezbollah in 2000.
A recent investigative report by the Lebanese journalist Nour Samaha shows that Israel is now pushing as much as “$50,000 a month” into a new rebel faction which is “in possession of only light weaponry, so [its fighters] act predominantly as border guards and patrol the area they’re in.” Samaha’s source for this was a rebel one. According to her investigation, Israel has a direct financial relationship in this way with somewhere between 300 and 1,000 rebel fighters. The report also names the new group’s leader as “Abu Suhaib Al-Joulani”, clearly a nom de guerre.
A few days after Samaha’s article was published, a Wall Street Journal report from Tel Aviv corroborated several aspects of her reporting, although the US newspaper’s take on the same story added some public relations spin on behalf of Israel.
This new Israeli proxy occupation of southern Syria is spun as “The Good Neighbourhood” policy. Read between the lines, though, and it’s not hard to see Israel’s occupation agenda at work. This propaganda coming out from Tel Aviv is also an attempt to distract from the fact that the rebel groups operating in the Golan have been allied to, if not outright affiliated with, Al-Qaeda.
Israel is attempting to portray its arming of extremist rebels in the Golan as something in line with US and European policy in Syria. In some ways it is. However, although Israel’s now fairly frequent bombing of Hezbollah positions is portrayed as targeting “arms smuggling” the reality seems rather different, and more to do with protecting the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan.
As Haaretz’s military correspondent put it recently, “Foiling arms smuggling is secondary to Israel’s main goal of thwarting Iran’s and Hezbollah’s presence in the Golan Heights.”
Even if a lasting peaceful settlement of the war in Syria can be reached, the new Israeli “zone of influence” stretching miles further than the Golan marks a new and potentially lasting problem threatening the region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.