If — as an old saying goes — politics makes strange bedfellows, then in Middle East politics we surely find the strangest.
The latest undeclared and unintentional alliance is that of Israel and Iran. Both are strongly opposed to ISIS, and both are active supporters of the Kurds. The support is focused, in recent years, in the Kurdish autonomous region that is part of Iraq.
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On August 26, twelve hours before a ceasefire ended the 51-day Israel-Gaza war, a no less significant event took place a thousand kilometers away from Tel Aviv. This event, like the Gaza war, signifies the rapidly changing new reality in the Middle East – a reality that is replete with severe dangers for Israel but also opens windows of opportunity for a radically different regional lineup.
In Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. In a joint press conference, the two revealed that Iran had agreed to supply weapons and ammunition to the Kurdish army, which is battling the extremist Islamic State (IS or ISIS).
The Kurds are fighting alongside the Iraqi army with the backing of the U.S. Air Force.
According to foreign reports, Israel in the past has supplied weapons and military advice and know-how to the Kurds. During the 1960s and 1970s, Iran (then a monarchy under the Shah) and Israel were strategic allies working together to assist the Kurds led by Mustafa Barzani (father of Masoud) in their battle for self-rule against Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad.
Thirty-five years after the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has demonized Israel as the “small Satan,” the two sworn enemies find themselves on the same side of a Middle Eastern front and sharing at least one national interest – to stop the advance of the bloodthirsty ISIS forces.
Even in Syria, where a civil war has raged since early 2011 (with the United Nations now estimated almost 200,000 deaths), Israel and Iran share a surprising set of interests.
They both want to stop the growing influence, beheadings, mass shootings, military victories, and territorial advances of ISIS.
Iran and its Lebanese Shiite proxy, Hezbollah, are deeply involved in the battle to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power. That has involved battling ISIS.
Israel is hoping — and preparing, if necessary, to take action — to prevent ISIS from taking control of the Syrian side of the 100-kilometer long stretch of border on the Golan Heights. The area had been mostly quiet for 40 years.
However, quiet on the Golan seems to be becoming more elusive by the day. Two days after the fighting in Gaza came to an end, several incidents took place near the Israeli border that bode ill for Israel.
It began with extremist rebel forces, not including ISIS, fighting the Damascus regime and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies, taking over the Syrian side of the Quneitra border crossing with Israel. Three-hundred rebels stormed the compound, and the small Syrian army force on site fled.
On August 28, rebels from Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) took captive dozens of UN peacekeepers from Fiji stationed in the demilitarized zone near the border. The captured Fijians are part of UNDOF – the UN Disengagement Observer Force – a mechanism that was put in place at the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The UNDOF mandate, renewed every few years, was to ensure that Israel and Syria maintain the cease-fire and separation of forces. A demilitarized (buffer) zone was established on both sides of the border – banning the entrance of armor and overflights.
Jabhat al-Nusra is considered to be a branch of al-Qaeda operating in Syria and Lebanon. Nusra, numbering some 7,000 mostly Syrian fighters spread out across the country, reached the Golan about two years ago. The numbers in that area have grown over the last few months as ISIS forces took control of northeast Syria – of late overtaking the Syrian air base at Tabqa and declaring the city of Raqqa as their capital of a self-declared caliphate – thus pushing the Nusra fighters southward.
With the exception of a few isolated positions, the entire 100-kilometer border strip is controlled by rebel forces, much of it by Nusra units. Their hatred for Israel is strong. Like ISIS, they wave a black flag, aim to carve out a caliphate, and they also abduct foreigners.
Despite all of this, Israel has managed over the past year to develop reasonably neighborly ties with the various factions, including Nusra.
One factor that has helped to advance this relationship: more than 1,000 casualties from the civil war who have been brought into Israel for treatment at the Sieff Hospital in Safed, the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, and an IDF field hospital set up near the border.
The situation is reminiscent (if on a small-scale) of the “good fence” policy Israel had on the Lebanese border in the 1970s. The establishment of a hospital and transfer of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan and Turkey — done by Israeli private donors and non-governmental organizations on the coattails of the government and the IDF — are part of a very clear approach to make every effort to preserve quiet along the border.
On the other hand, armed conflict and chaotic conditions have always presented opportunities for the other side to glean intelligence. Amid the uncertainties, where it is difficult to distinguish between friend and foe, it is easier to recruit agents from among a confused and desperate population, or to send in reconnaissance missions.
ISIS has no hold on the Golan Heights, but it does have a small force of fighters in a few of the villages near the border. This presence is not a strong source of concern for Israel, but the defense establishment is keeping a very close watch on developments.
The volatile situation in Syria in general and in the battles on the border in particular can change at any moment. The danger that the continued advance of ISIS in Syria will whet its appetite and lead them toward the Israeli border cannot be ignored.
To add to the chaos, while the UN hostage crisis remained unresolved, an Israeli anti-aircraft battery firing a Patriot missile shot down a hostile drone violating its air space near Quneitra.
Israeli sources could not determine whether the unmanned aerial vehicle belonged to Syria, Hezbollah, or Iran, but its purpose was the same. It was on a reconnaissance mission – not necessarily against Israel, but probably to assess and photograph the rebel positions on the Syrian side of the Golan.
This illustrates the irony surrounding the Syrian-Israeli border crisis: Israel doesn’t want the Islamists to control the border area, and Israel prefers Assad’s army as the devil it already knows. However, holding the regime officially responsible for violations of the disengagement agreement, the IDF shoots back at the Syrian army — regardless of who truly fired into Israel.
Israel’s policy of non-intervention in Syria’s civil war has not changed. Yet Israel has taken action more than half-a-dozen times: with air force attacks on convoys or weapons depots of the Syrian army to stop the transport of advanced missiles and radar to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel never claimed responsibility for these attacks, which has allowed both sides to preserve deniability and keep Assad’s regime from feeling humiliated and forced into attacking in response.
Despite Israel’s non-intervention policies, there are voices within the defense establishment and intelligence communities who have second thoughts about whether it is better for Israel that Assad stays in power.
At the outset of the Syrian war, the prevailing idea in the Israeli decision-making echelon was that it was in the national interest to see Assad go. It was then-defense minister Ehud Barak who declared that Assad’s days were numbered, giving him three weeks before being toppled. This attitude was based on the fact that Hezbollah and Iran – Israel’s most hated rivals – were on Assad’s side.
So the old dictum of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” prevailed.
Now, however, the same concept is pushing Israeli leaders to realize that Assad, Iran and Hezbollah – having such a dangerous enemy as ISIS – could, at least on one front, find themselves with an alliance of interests with Israel.
As such, in Syria – like in Iraq, with the Kurds – Israel might find itself on the same side as Iran.
The events in Iraq and Syria demonstrate the phenomenal changes the Middle East has undergone in recent years. Old alliances are disintegrating. Old interests are becoming unimportant. The ties between the various forces are changing, and new players are emerging onto the scene.
[The original article: http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/A-web-of-alliances-374231]