Despite a pairing up of two Islamic State-linked militant groups on Israel’s northern border and a show of boldness by the new alliance, their threat to the Jewish state remains minimal, experts on jihadi groups in Syria told The Times of Israel.
As the Syrian civil war rages into its fifth year, with some estimates putting the death toll at nearly half a million people, small to medium-sized militant groups continue to jockey for power, switch allegiances and swap control of territory. This volatile situation extends all the way to Israel’s doorstep.
The two most powerful Sunni groups that now control territory on Israel’s northern border are the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, which is estimated to have several thousand fighters, and the IS-linked Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (YMB), which according to most estimates, has up to 1,000 members.
An IDF officer told The Times of Israel in March that the Israeli army was keeping a close eye on both groups, afraid they might carry out an attack — a car bomb, rocket launching, or kidnapping — in order to score propaganda points with their benefactors; both Islamic State and al-Qaeda have threatened Israel in the past.
The overall assessment, however, remains that these jihadi groups are too pre-occupied fighting each other and reinforcing their grip on their respective territory to open a battlefront with the Middle East’s most powerful military.
Of the two groups, the IDF officer suggested that though al-Nusra was more powerful, the group is considered less of a threat than YMB. Al-Nusra has gained a reputation for being a somewhat rational actor in Syria, especially in comparison to the Islamic State group, whose brazen ideology makes their affiliate on Israel’s northern border a looser canon.
Since The Times of Israel spoke with the IDF in March, there have been two important interconnected changes on the southern Syrian battlefield.
First, YMB sprung an unexpected offensive against Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces in the southern Daraa province in late March-early April. The IS-linked group managed to take the towns of Tasil and Sahm al-Jawlan, and nearly split in half FSA’s territory. This could have been a disaster for the moderate fighters, as it would have cut off their northern forces from logistical support they receive from Jordan.
Second, during this Daraa offensive, YMB joined forces with another, smaller IS-linked group called the Islamic Muthanna Movement (IMM).
Since the launch of the Daraa offensive, experts say that the FSA has retaken all the territory it lost to the IS-linked groups. The jihadi force most threatening to Israel is now fighting with its back to the wall in their home turf.
In a statement on Tuesday, the IDF spokesperson suggested the working assessment about the threat these groups posed had not changed since March.
“The IDF is prepared for any potential escalation on the Syrian border. Currently, elements on the Syrian side of the border are focused on fighting between the different groups and not with Israel,” the statement said.
In an article published on Sunday, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an expert on jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, examined the danger Syrian groups pose to Israel’s northern border. In the piece, he addressed the new alliance between the IS-linked groups and their brazen attack in Daraa.
The immediate cause for the change of dynamics in YMB, Tamimi wrote, was the appointment of a new leader for the group in March. The replacement chief was likely sent by central Islamic State leadership, and is not a native of the Yarmouk Valley, but a Saudi by the name of Abu Abdallah al-Madani.
The new appointment cemented the transition of the group from moderate and FSA-affiliated to an IS affiliate, and set the groundwork for the bold offensive that sent the local militia fighting out if its native heartland.
Despite the new leadership for YMB and their military alliance with IMM, Tamimi’s overall assessment of the jihadi threat to Israel mirrored the IDF’s.
“The risk posed to Israel by the various Sunni jihadi groups in southern Syria is low,” as these groups have “far greater priorities than to focus their energies on Israel,” he wrote.
In his article, Tamimi argued that Israel’s priority for the southern Syrian battlefield should be to ensure that YMB does not expand far enough to link up contiguously with formal Islamic State territory, which could be a great boon to the militia.
When asked how probable it was that YMB could reach IS territory, the closest of which is around 100 kilometers (62 miles) away near Damascus and blocked off by regime forces and the FSA, Tamimi wrote that it was a “very remote prospect,” especially as YMB is now on the defensive in its own heartland.
When asked whether any of these Sunni jihadi groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State really ever plan to strike Israel, or whether their rhetoric was empty threats, Tamimi responded, “They would only attack if they felt strong enough to do so and could sustain a fight with Israel. This will not be on anyone’s mind at least in the near future.”
Michael Horowitz, an expert on the Syrian war for the Levantine Group, a geopolitical risk analysis firm based in the Middle East, said that he agreed with the assessment that YMB, despite its new aggressiveness, is not interested in opening a second front with Israel.
Horowitz explained that though YMB and IMM were once rivals, it was likely their joint rapprochement to the Islamic State that has brought them closer together.
Horowitz also doubted recent reports that circulated in Israeli media that YMB has chemical weapons, noting that such weaponry could only come from regime bases, which are scarce in the Yarmouk Valley.
“The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigades are in quite a dire situation. So if they had chemical weapons, they would have used them by now,” Horowitz added.
Dire situation or not, Horowitz concluded, “[YMB] have never shown that they desire to strike Israel.”
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report