Israelis have nothing to fear from IS but fear itself
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Analysis

Israelis have nothing to fear from IS but fear itself

Beset by military defeats and a host of other headaches, Islamic State is relying on suicide attacks and nasty videos to keep its credibility intact. Let's not help them

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Threats from across the border in a video released by an Islamic State affiliate on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights on September 3, 2016 (YouTube screenshot)
Threats from across the border in a video released by an Islamic State affiliate on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights on September 3, 2016 (YouTube screenshot)

A video released on Saturday by an organization called the “Khalid ibn al-Walid Army,” which is identified as a new branch of the Islamic State on the Syrian Golan Heights, has become a hit in the Hebrew media, widely and prominently reported.

There is little surprising in the video, which features the scenes Westerners have come to associate with the jihadist group: flogging, death sentences, amputations, and so on. The Khalid ibn al-Walid Army has failed recently to conquer any new territory on the Syrian Golan, and despite its threatening rhetoric, the militia is not a new or unusual threat to Israel. It is just another armed group operating in the Syrian Golan Heights, without any particularly impressive military ability.

The organization, presented in the video as carrying out tank and artillery battles against an unspecified enemy, is far from a threat to the IDF. It is not even a threat to the moderate Syrian opposition organizations or the fighters of the-Nusra Front, which it sees as its main enemy within the framework of the raging battle for primacy among the ultra-extreme groups in Syria.

In other words, Israelis don’t have anything to fear in that direction.

The Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
The Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

IS, or the groups like the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army that purport to represent it on the Syrian side of the border, are not going to conquer the Israeli Golan Heights anytime soon.

Quite the opposite. IS, which announced the establishment of its worldwide caliphate in June 2014, enjoyed a few months of ecstasy that included victories and tremendous territorial conquests. But for more than a year now, IS has been busy in unsuccessful attempts to stop the advance of enemy forces which are piece by piece reconquering territory.

Smokes billows on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border as Turkey's military and US-backed coalition forces launched an operation to clear a Syrian border town from Islamic State, August 24, 2016. Photo DHA via AP
Smokes billows on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border as Turkey’s military and US-backed coalition forces launched an operation to clear a Syrian border town from Islamic State, August 24, 2016. Photo DHA via AP

On the Golan Heights, the IS situation is not great, to put it mildly. Its predecessor, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, fell to pieces after its commander Muhammad “Abu Ali” al-Baridi and some of his senior colleagues were killed in a suicide bomb attack by the Nusra Front. The remnants united with two other jihadist groups and from that was born the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army.

But the Golan Heights is the smallest of the headaches that IS is dealing with at the moment. Three weeks ago, the Kurds conquered from IS the town of Manbij; Fallujah, held by IS since the beginning of 2014, was taken in June by the Iraqi army; and in recent days the Turkish army managed to conquer from IS some villages on the Syrian border. On top of all of that are the targeted killings of senior IS figures in airstrikes, such as that of IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani last month, along with a reduction in financial income, a drop in volunteers lining up to fight, and various other problems.

The Islamic State group has responded to all of these setbacks in two of the ways in which it still excels: firstly, by suicide attacks like those carried out Monday in areas across Syria, including Hasakah City, Homs, Tartus, and Damascus, in which more than 40 people were killed. And secondly, via videos on the internet.

Both of these methods help maintain its image as “victorious” despite the military defeats. They enable the jihadist group to present apparent “achievements” on social media with sufficient effect as to prevent its stream of volunteers from drying up completely. They keep alive the idea of an Islamic State, despite the reality of defeats on the battlefield. And that, in essence, is the biggest danger IS poses for the Western world – not the threats of another jihadist faction on the Golan Heights, but the ideas disseminated by such factions, permeating the minds of young Muslims across the world, not just in the Middle East.

This undated image provided by SITE Intel Group shows Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, the Islamic State number 2 who was 'martyred' in northern Syria, the jihadist group said on Aug. 30, 2016. (SITE Intel Group via AP)
This undated image provided by SITE Intel Group shows Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, the Islamic State number 2 who was ‘martyred’ in northern Syria, the jihadist group said on Aug. 30, 2016. (SITE Intel Group via AP)

Europe is getting ready

IS military defeats in the Middle East bring with them familiar troubles for Europe and elsewhere. The Independent reported Tuesday morning that European countries are preparing for the possibility that thousands of jihadists — who in recent years traveled from Europe to Syria and Iraq, where they fought for IS — will try now to return to their countries of origin in light of the territorial and financial setbacks.

The British paper estimated that 5,000-7,000 Europeans joined Islamic terror groups during the five-year-old, ongoing Syrian civil war. Just from Britain, there were around 800 volunteers. To date, most of them have remained in areas still under IS control or elsewhere in the Middle East. and only a few have returned to their countries of origin. One of the reasons for this is that IS does everything it can to prevent volunteers from leaving, including executing deserters. Nonetheless, it can be expected that the ability of IS to prevent its members from leaving Syria and Iraq will decline as its military capability weakens.

Smoke billows following air strikes by a Turkish Army jet fighter on the Syrian Turkish border village of Jarabulus during fighting against Islamic S State group targets, August 24, 2016 . (AFP/BULENT KILIC)
Smoke billows following airstrikes by a Turkish Army jet fighter on the Syrian Turkish border village of Jarablus during fighting against Islamic State group targets, August 24, 2016 . (AFP/BULENT KILIC)

As for the Hebrew media, why is it so interested in the monster called the Islamic State? Is it our Jewish trend for panic, as expressed in the old adage “in every generation they rise up to destroy us?” Or perhaps the excessive fondness of journalists for drama?

The answer is likely affirmative to both, but another factor needs to be taken into consideration: ratings. IS, the conqueror, destroyer, executor, brings ratings. Readers, viewers, listeners all want to know about this cruel organization, real life perpetrator of ongoing horror movies.

The true picture of IS facing defeats, retreating from the battlefield, is much less captivating than all those clips of Arab Muslim extremists cutting off people’s heads on the other side of the border and very soon (but not really) conquering Israel and executing all of us.

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