Gaza War Just ‘Finished’, Israel Has a New Crisis Spilling Over from Syria: It’s Not ISIS — Not Yet

[Yossi Melman, co-author of the updated history of Israeli intelligence and security agencies — Spies Against Armageddon — wrote this article for the website of the non-stop TV news service based in Israel, i24news.tv.]

Even as Israelis took a deep breath of relief as the cease-fire in the Gaza war continued to hold, they awoke Wednesday morning to realize that a new source of concern had opened on the northern border.

Syrian opposition forces, after fierce battles with the Syrian army, took over the Quneitra border crossing in the Golan Heights.

The border crossing is the only official gate between Syria and Israel, manned by the United Nations Disengagement Observatory Force (UNDOF), in place since the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

For a few hours, the news from the northern border increased Israeli concern, due to reports that the Nusra Front – Islamists identified with Al-Qaeda and supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – had seized controlled of the area. Hours later, different reports suggested that a secular unit of the Free Syrian Army was in control of the crossing.

Nevertheless, the incidents in Quneitra were a wake-up call for Israel, demonstrating how the changing events in the Middle East — from the advances of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria to turmoil in Libya and the Gaza war — are affecting old Israeli security doctrines and stability.

i24 black logoFor three and a half years, Israel has tried to stay away from the Syrian civil war, having one ultimate interest in mind: maintaining security and stability at the border and preserving the routine tranquility of Israel’s rural communities in the Golan Heights (the land captured from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and then formally annexed by Israel).

On occasion, Israel interfered in the war when its intelligence uncovered attempts by President Bashar Assad’s regime to supply weapons – mainly long-range Iranian or Syrian-made missiles – to Hezbollah as a payment for the Shiite Lebanese movement’s support for the Syrian government in the war.

The Israeli Air Force attacked supply convoys six times, but never claimed responsibility for those airstrikes — thus leaving a space of deniability and providing the Syrian government a face-saver to turn a blind eye to the blatant Israeli violations of Syria’s sovereignty.

In other instances, Israel responded with mild artillery shells whenever errant fire or mortars landed on the Israeli side of the border. These were seen as unintentional results of clashes between the opposition forces and the Syrian army.

In this way, Israel believed it was preserving its deterrence vis-à-vis the Syrian government, without humiliating the Assad regime.

But in the last year, the opposition forces – Islamists of the Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army – took over most of the Syrian army positions close to Israel. Following Wednesday’s events, they now almost entirely control a 100-kilometer strip on the UNDOF-patrolled frontier.

-WHY ISRAEL SET UP A HOSPITAL TO TREAT WOUNDED SYRIANS-

Realizing the changes along its border, Israel secretly began to reach out to the Syrian opposition forces in order to ensure that they would not turn hostile. Israel opened a field hospital on the border and has in the last year treated more than 1,000 wounded combatants and civilians. On the face of it, this is a humanitarian gesture, but it also helps Israel maintain good neighborly relations with the opposition forces in Syria, hoping to ensure that the border will stay relatively calm.

Nevertheless, there are hostile elements such as the Islamic State in the vicinity. The ISIS forces are small and insignificant in this area, but they are a potential threat to the stability of what used to be Israel’s quiet border for many years.

At the same time, these and other regional events in Iraq and Kurdistan also provide an opportunity for new alliances in the region. It was revealed this week that Iran is supplying the Iraqi Kurdish authorities with ammunition and weapons to repel ISIS (also known as IS, and the Obama Administration calls it ISIL).

Israel, a traditional covert ally of the Kurds, is also still assisting them in the security and military field. For the first time since 1979 when Iran overthrew the Shah and became an Islamic Republic, Iran and Israel have found themselves supporting the same side on of the Middle East’s major fronts.

It should also not be ruled out that Israel may now have second thoughts about the events in Syria and would prefer – maybe even passively support — the Assad regime staying in power, despite the fact that Israel’s long-sworn enemies Iran and Hezbollah are on Assad’s side.

August 28, 2014

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