Who’s on the Syrian Side Near Israel? Nusra, FSA, and Brotherhood — Not ISIS, Not for Now

Here’s the latest from a senior Israeli military source who’s very well informed about the situation along the Syrian border — or, as some would put it, along the October 1973 armistice line on the Golan Heights.

The main headline is that Syria’s government does not control its side of the line. After more than 3 and a half years of civil war in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s army has been driven away from the frontier with Israel.

Anti-Assad rebels are now massed along the fences meant to separate Syria from Israeli forces, settlements, and vineyards.


Considering the terror spread worldwide by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), here’s some good news for Israel:ISIS doesn’t seem to be up close at the Golan Heights fence. The Islamic State is instead near the Iraqi border — and has poured a large number of fighting men into Iraq. (It should be noted that ISIS propaganda does promise that the eventual “caliphate” the group hopes to establish would include replacing the Jewish state of Israel with an Arab Muslim state of Palestine.)

So who are the rebels at the fence?

The Israeli military source made it clear Israel is closely watching what he refers to as “a 100-kilometer border strip.” Aman — the military intelligence agency — counts between 1,000 and 1,500 anti-Assad fighters on the Syrian side.

Roughly one-third are part of An-Nusra Front (which seems to identify strongly with the late Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda). One-third are labeled as Muslim Brotherhood — the organization smashed by Assad’s father, the late dictator Hafez al-Assad, when his army carried out the huge massacre in Hama in 1982.

The remaining one-third — as many as 500 fighters — along the frontier are part of the Free Syrian Army. Commanders of the FSA include many who have met with American and other Western envoys — and even with Senator John McCain last year, on both sides of Turkey’s border with Syria.

As the FSA continues to maneuver, cajole, and pray for arms and training from the U.S., that group is not believed to be strongly hostile to Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood fighters are considered to be entirely busy with their own Syrian concerns, and cynically could be said to be “happy they’re alive.” Attacking or pestering Israel is unlikely to be high on their agenda.

The Nusra Front, however, could be a different story. Its fighters kidnapped several dozen United Nations peacekeepers from Fiji — and then fought a gunbattle with UNDOF troops from the Philippines who refused to be taken prisoner. (UNDOF is the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force which has patrolled the Golan Heights since late 1973.)

To try to prove themselves to be pan-national Islamic heroes, the Nusra Front fighters could conceivably lob some shells at Israel — or even try to infiltrate the Israeli side to stage a headline-grabbing attack. But that is not considered likely.

public CIA map of Syria

public CIA map of Syria

The Israeli source notes that Syria’s air force has bombed the rebel positions. Also, because both the rebels and Syria’s army have used tanks in the area, the Syrians are violating the disengagement accords (which UNDOF is meant to police).

Israel does not, however, feel itself to be in danger from that front — so it does nothing except file occasional complaints with the U.N.   Israel’s military is, however, preparing for the possibility of armed conflict on the Golan in the future.

Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, eight years after capturing the territory from Syria. Occasional negotiations that might have returned most of the land to Syria, in exchange for a reliable peace treaty, led to nought. For the foreseeable future, Israel would prefer that UNDOF remain to help keep matters calm.

Israeli intelligence, meantime, is monitoring all the factions in Syria. Anyone who is familiar with intelligence techniques can see that even an admirable humanitarian gesture — such as providing hospital treatment in northern Israel to selected Syrians who are wounded in the civil war — affords Israeli intelligence many opportunities to become intimately acquainted with what is occurring inside Syria.

September 3, 2014

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