Members of the Syrian opposition have been left frustrated by an Israeli airstrike against regime targets on Sunday night, claiming that a more forceful strike coordinated with the fighting forces on the ground could have bolstered their position and boosted Israeli popularity in the Syrian Golan Heights.
The Israeli Air Force strikes hit seven targets on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, including the headquarters of the 90th Brigade near Quneitra and a number of surrounding anti-tank and artillery companies, opposition sources told The Times of Israel. According to regime sources, four men were killed in the attacks — other reports put the number at 10 — which were a retaliation for the cross-border killing of Mohammed Karakra, a 15-year-old Israeli boy.
Syrian oppositionists on the ground reported that the regime withdrew its tanks from the bases ahead of the Israeli strikes, and subsequently returned them to their positions.
“The hits, although accurate, didn’t harm the regime’s offensive capabilities,” one opposition activist told The Times of Israel. “We have contacted a number of Free Syrian Army commanders who told us the strikes were nothing but a tickle. They have not disabled the regime’s ability to defend its positions.”
It is doubtful whether Israel ever intended its airstrikes to be more than just “a tickle.” Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning on Monday that Israel would “continue to forcefully hurt anyone who attacks us or tries to attack us,” the Israeli operation Sunday didn’t significantly deviate from previous pinpoint retaliations against Syrian positions following violent spillover into Israel.
The death of Karakra, in what the IDF deemed an intended attack and not a case of errant fire, failed to sway Israeli decision makers against Assad enough to justify effective military support for rebel forces on the Golan.
One opposition member told The Times of Israel that had the airforce strikes been coordinated with the Free Syrian Army, fighters on the ground could have possibly captured a number of regime bases, a move that would have boosted Israel’s popularity among local residents. “The population is very pleased with the attack, and believes that it is a step on the way to deposing the dictator,” he said, nevertheless.
But an FSA spokesman from Daraa, recently injured in battle, said the Syrian opposition faces a real dilemma in weighing cooperation with Israel.
“One analyst said that we should have moved on the ground with the strike, but we didn’t do a thing. It would have been a mistake to intervene during the strike when there are people who oppose [Israeli military] assistance… People on the [Syrian] Golan are divided between those who favor Israeli support and those who say ‘let them leave us alone.’”
The limited Israeli operation, the fighter opined, was a function of Israeli indecision about how to best confront its enemy Assad.
“Israel has made up its mind against Assad, but hasn’t yet decided to wage open war against him,” he said. “There is no argument that Israel opposes him, but it still has some reservations.”
Actually, many in the Syrian opposition doubt whether Israel truly opposes Assad, or whether it is really assisting him behind the scenes while sophisticatedly covering its tracks. One political opposition member based in Istanbul, who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition on anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his position, argued that most of Assad’s opponents still strongly believe that Israel continues to prop up his regime after having enjoyed decades of quiet on its border with Syria.
‘We have contacted a number of Free Syrian Army commanders who told us the strikes were nothing more than a tickle’
“Israel supports Assad and wants him to remain, but doesn’t say so publicly. Instead, it moves others to that end,” he said. “Had Israel given NATO and America the green light to undertake a military operation, they would have done so and removed the regime… the Zionist lobby controls all world decisions.”
The Syrian population interprets the Israeli strikes against Assad’s army as an attempt to destroy its military equipment and infrastructure before the opposition gets the chance to take it over.
“Israel is scared to arm the opposition, but it could have undertaken a strong military operation. It could disrupt communications of [regime] aircraft and impose a no-fly zone in the entire southern area [of Syria],” he said.
Proof of Israel’s support for Assad emerged last June, he said, when Israel allowed regime tanks to wrest control of the Quneitra border crossing with Israel from the rebels, who had managed to capture it.
“Israel allowed the tanks to enter the buffer zone, where no arms are allowed, something it had never done before,” he said. “Here was Israel, bringing the enemy to our land with its heavy weaponry to hit the rebels… this was the best proof.”