AnalysisTargeting Israel has propaganda value, but the al-Nusra Front may have other priorities

A different sort of dangerous: The new jihadi threat from Syria

A very wary Israel watches as an al-Qaeda offshoot wrests control of the Quneitra crossing area from Assad’s forces

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Al-Nusra Front fighters standing near the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria. (screen capture: YouTube)
Al-Nusra Front fighters standing near the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria. (screen capture: YouTube)

The Islamic State, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, is a cancer that should not be allowed to spread. It advances a “genocidal agenda” and “no civilized country should shirk its responsibility to help stamp out this disease.”

For the past week, the Israeli army has watched as a different strain of that same malady set up camp along the border, hoisting the black al-Qaeda flag over the Quneitra crossing on the Golan Heights. Israeli farmers have been ordered back from the border, as the ongoing fighting has occasionally spilled over.

And although it’s probably wrong to speak of ideology, however odious, as disease, because the cure can be overly aggressive, there is no doubt that the fall of Quneitra, for now — Assad’s forces are battling to take it back — represents a significant milestone en route to the destabilization of a border region that has been largely tranquil since US secretary of state Henry Kissinger pushed Israel and Syria to sign a disengagement agreement on May 31, 1974.

In the wake of this destabilization in the Golan, the defense establishment has grappled with two central questions: Who does Israel want to see emerging as the victor? And what should be done in the meantime?

The army, concerned primarily with the reality that has taken shape in the Golan — less so with the geopolitical implications of jihadist instability versus a triumph of the Syrian-Hezbollah-Iran axis — has re-hauled its deployment in the Golan Heights.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (L) seen during a tour in the Golan Heights, February 23, 2014  (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (left) during a tour of the Golan Heights, February 23, 2014 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the commander of the IDF General Staff, ordered a major shift last fall. He relieved Division 36, one of the army’s only conscripted armored divisions, of its duties in the Golan Heights — the threat of a Syrian ground assault seems to have expired — and assembled, on the sloping plateau, a newly reconfigured regional division. These troops are focused not on ground maneuvers and firepower, the ingredients necessary to win wars, but rather on perimeter security.

The Bashan Division, operational in its new capacity since early 2014, is staffed with rotating infantry troops — the Golani Brigade hustled back from Gaza last week and took up its posts — along with greater surveillance and a much-improved fence.

“In the past, our primary threat was the Syrian army,” a regional officer told The Times of Israel during a 2013 tour of the border. “We knew it very well: when they wake up, what their days look like, the formation of their troop deployment.”

Today, he said, the primary danger, as far as his division is concerned, is of cross-border infiltration.

Therefore, the surveillance teams along the Syrian border, he continued, were the first to receive what the army calls a “multiple-sensor system” — a newly operational mechanism that synchronizes an array of radar and optical findings into one concrete warning. “It’s a huge advance,” he explained, and added that “it’s the only one in the country.”

The border fence itself, which is still under construction and is similar to the fence along Israel’s southern border with Egypt, is dug deep into the ground. “The old one,” the officer said, “could be knocked over with one kick and easily crossed with a ladder.” The new one is protected by an anti-personnel ditch, is impassable to throngs of people, and is strong enough to detonate an incoming anti-tank missile before it reaches its target.

The irony in the construction of the fence is that it was spurred on by a 2011 Nakba Day demonstration along the Syrian border, in which hundreds of Palestinians living in Syria rushed the border fence and, amid stone-throwing and Israeli fire, managed to cross the border and reach the Druze town of Majdal Shams.

The troops on the border were seen to have acted wisely in using their firearms in a discriminating way, killing four protesters, but concern about the violation of Israeli sovereignty and the way an intifada along the border could shift the focus of the war in Syria, hastened the construction of the fence.

Today, clearly, the main purpose of the 15-foot-high steel barrier has little to do with popular uprisings; it is the face of a potent Israeli deterrence set on keeping IS and al-Qaeda at bay.

The new border fence as seen from the Druze village of Majdal Shams (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)
The new border fence as seen from the Druze village of Majdal Shams. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash 90)

The collapse of UNDOF

In that, the army may soon be stripped of a useful tool: UNDOF. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, at first untouched by the war in Syria, has again come under direct fire in recent days. The 46-mile-long area of separation between Israel and Syria, the corridor manned by UNDOF, has been violated repeatedly by rebel troops.

Last week, armed rebels surrounded 72 Filipino UNDOF blue helmets, who were later rescued and evacuated via Israel, and seized 44 additional Fijian peacekeepers, who are still missing and have not been heard from, the UN said Monday.

During the past year-and-a-half, ever since 21 Philippine peacekeepers were abducted from their posts in the Golan in March 2013, it would seem that the UNDOF troops have been given more tools to ensure their safety and allow the continuation of their mission, which was meant to be executed during, and only during, times of tranquility.

The collapse of the highly regarded force, a distinct possibility, would not fundamentally change the picture on the Golan Heights, but it would increase the friction between Israel and the jihadi forces in the region.

Those forces, hardened by war, still seem far less savvy than Hamas or Hezbollah. They are not single-minded in their devotion to resistance first and foremost against the existence of the state of Israel and, therefore, have not equipped themselves accordingly, with weapons that target civilians and positions built amid civilian populations.

Additionally, the terrain works in Israel’s favor, with the Israel Defense Forces positioned on the high ground, along the line of the hills, on the Golan. The possibility of the region becoming akin to the Jordan Valley during the one-thousand-day period between the close of the 1967 war and September 1970, during which PLO terrorists repeatedly infiltrated into Israel, is certainly, regrettably, a possibility, if the organizations near the border choose to focus on Israel.

As to what outcome in Syria is preferable for Israel in the long run — Sunni jihadists, very much at war with each other; or Alawite-backed Shiite extremists — the defense establishment is likely torn.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, when asked last summer if the Israeli policy on Syria is akin to Kissinger’s quip during the Iran-Iraq War — it’s a pity both sides can’t lose — responded, at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy address: “Might be.”

He clarified: “The worst outcome in Syria is a chaotic situation… meaning a vacuum in which al-Qaeda elements, terror elements will come in and will challenge us, will challenge Jordan, will challenge the stability of the region.”

Maj.-Gen. (res) Uzi Dayan, a former deputy chief of the IDF General Staff and a former head of the National Security Council, said at around the same time, “What really frightens me is a ring of Muslim Brotherhood nations from Turkey to Egypt. That’s what I’m most concerned about.”

Others, like Amos Yadlin, see the glass half-full. The erosion of Syria’s “modern, formidable army,” he said during a 2013 address, is a “positive strategic development” that overshadows the dangers of dwindling state control on Israel’s northeastern front.

“The black headlines,” added the former head of Military Intelligence and current director of the INSS think tank, are actually good news for Israel, because, amid the five possible outcomes of the war — Assad survives; the war grinds on; Syria disintegrates along ethnic lines; a strong Sunni state emerges; the region collapses into a Somalia-like reality — Israel, in each instance, “is less threatened than… when I was still head of Intelligence.”

Al-Nusra Front priorities

Boaz Ganor, the founder and head of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terror at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, said this week that the threat of al-Qaeda at the border was neither more, nor less, dangerous than what previously existed. “It is just a different sort of dangerous,” he said.

He described the battles between jihadist leaders in Syria and Iraq today as “a situation of warlords,” and said that the jihadists’ perch along Israel’s border fence was “a problematic and worrying development.”

The chances of the al-Nusra Front turning its attention to Israel is increased both on account of proximity and the propaganda bounty inherent in an attack on the Jewish state, Ganor said. But, he stressed, the question is not whether the Nusra forces have the desire to do so, but where that desire stands on their priority list.

He suggested the jihadists’ next attempt would be on Jordan, where the ideology already exists and where the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian refugees already play a destabilizing role, followed by the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.

“In the hierarchy,” Ganor explained, “those goals come before Jerusalem.”

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