Israel is inadvisably but increasingly involved in conflicts raging in its northern and southern neighbours. In the north, Israel has for several years provided aid and comfort to Daesh, Al Qaeda, and other insurgents fighting the Syrian government. This began by offering medical treatment to anti-government fighters and gradually involved ministering to wounded civilians, offering humanitarian aid, and paying fighters’ salaries.
Nour Samaha, writing on The Intercept website on January 23, revealed that Israel intends to create a “safe zone” by expanding the buffer zone along the occupied Golan Heights into the Syrian provinces of Quneitra and Daraa. Justification for Israel’s latest land-grab in Syria is its determination that the Israeli army must not confront the Syrian army, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Lebanon’s Hizbollah fighters along the Golan ceasefire line.
She writes that this “safe zone” could consist of a 40-kilometre wide, “Israeli monitored buffer” area, employ a proxy, 500-strong “Syrian border police force armed and trained by Israel, and involve Israel in civil administration in opposition-controlled areas in [the] two southern provinces.”
According to Samaha, Israel has been seriously concerned about growing Iranian influence in Syria and has been dissatisfied with security assurances provided by the US and Russia as Syria’s war has wound down, leaving the Assad government in power thanks to Russia and Iran. While she says the buffer zone plan has been rejected by the Western powers, Israeli Army Chief-of-Staff Gadi Eisenkof told an Israeli newspaper, “We’re pursuing several different avenues to prevent Iranian entrenchment within 30-40km of the border…We want to get to a point there is no Iranian influence in Syria, and this is being done in a combined military and diplomatic effort.”
Iran’s role and influence will end once the war ends. Only then will Syrians themselves thank Iran for its efforts to rescue their country from the deadly chaos infecting Libya and Yemen and ask Iran to withdraw its forces. Iran is in no position to maintain troops and militiamen or a strong political presence in Syria because, unlike Iraq, the majority of Syrians is not Shiite. Syrian Sunnis, Christians and others do not want Iran to stay on. Tehran understands this. Iranian Revolutionary Guards and allied militiamen currently keep a low profile and are not to be seen as are Russian officers, soldiers, and tank-transporters. During a 1,700-kilometre journey around Syria — from Damascus to Homs to Deir Ezzor to Aleppo and back to Damascus — during October, the only sign I saw of an Iranian presence was a flag fluttering from a checkpoint off the main road south of Aleppo.
If her information is correct, Samaha’s report shows that Israel has learnt nothing from bad experiences with “safe zones” and proxies in southern Lebanon or from its 1982 invasion and occupation of Lebanon from the Lebanese-Israel border to Beirut. The 40-kilometre width of Israel’s proposed “safe zone” within Syria is exactly the figure given by Defence Minister Ariel Sharon when he presented to the Israeli Cabinet his plan for the invasion of Lebanon.
Once he received the go-ahead, he ordered his troops to go to West Beirut where he mounted a siege on the city’s population from land, sea and air. Although the Israeli army fought Syrian forces based in the Bekaa Valley, Sharon paid no attention to a small contingent of Iranian Revolutionary Guards based there. They trained and armed Shiite fighters to fight Israel. In 1983 these fighters — who morphed into Hizbollah — forced Israel to withdraw from most of Lebanon. In 2000 Hizbollah drove the Israeli army and its surrogates out of southern Lebanon and in 2006 fought the Israeli army to a standstill and compelled it to retreat a second time from that region.
The most significant “unintended consequence” of Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon was the creation of Hizbollah and the rooting of Iranian influence in that country. That war also led to the establishment and rise of a mass peace movement in Israel which has, unfortunately, been largely extinguished.
In the south, with Cairo’s encouragement, unmarked Israeli war planes and helicopters have been conducting strikes on Daesh extremists in Egypt’s Northern Sinai province.
The Egyptian army has, unsuccessfully, battled the Daesh affiliate, Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, since 2011 following the political chaos and security vacuum caused by the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak. The taqfiris stepped up their anti-government campaign in Sinai and carried out attacks in Cairo and other cities following the mid-2013 ouster of president Mohammd Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood stalwart. While the Israeli-Egyptian “counterterrorism” connection is touted as an advance by Western officials, the Egyptian authorities are keeping mum on the issue. Egyptian public opposes cooperation with Israel, perhaps, even more than it hates Daesh. On this front, Israel simply seeks to prevent Daesh from infecting Gaza, which is a fertile ground for taqfiri recruiters due to Israel’s longstanding siege and blockade.
It is ironic, therefore, that Israel is bombing Daesh in Egypt while supporting Daesh in Syria. Preserving Daesh and allied taqfiris as an “asset” anywhere is a dangerous, cynical game which will have fresh “unintended consequences” for Israel and for its allies in the approving West.
It must not be that forgotten taqfiri groups, or mujahedeen, that fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were recruited in Pakistan, armed by the US and financed by Saudi Arabia. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, mujahedeen factions battled each other until the Taliban, formed in Afghan camps in Pakistan and fired by education in Saudi madrassas, seized power and ruled from 1996 until 2001. Al Qaeda also emerged from this war as the leading arm of an international taqfiri movement which has spawned Daesh and Jabhat Al Nusra, Boko Haram, and the entire range of radical fundamentalist factions.
Exploiting religious radicals of any faith is never good policy for they pursue eternal agendas rather than the sort of short-term strategies crafted by military men serving short-term governments.