Photo: AFP
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah
Photo: AFP
Dr. Yaron Friedman

Syria's rebels are pitting Israel against Hezbollah, and winning

Israel must think carefully about who benefits the most from the recent escalation along its Golan border with Syria.

"We will respond at the appropriate time and place." Both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah have made much use of this expression, but the threats made by this "axis of resistance" against Israel have become a laughing stock among Sunni jihadist organizations.



The Syrian rebels have been claiming for the past three years that Assad and Nasrallah are turning their weapons on the Syrian people instead of Israel. The rebels have dubbed Assad the "Golan rabbit" and Nasrallah the "flat-screen sheikh", a reference to his decision to hide underground after the 2006 Lebanon War, for fear of being killed.


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Are the pressure and criticism for lack of fighting against Israel starting to affect the Shiite axis? Israel rushed to blame Hezbollah for the explosive device in the Golan Heights that wounded four Israeli soldiers on Tuesday. Israel's response was swift and pointed, with the Israel Air Force attacking several Syrian army locations. The IDF blames the Assad-Hezbollah axis for the attack and for the recent escalation on Israel's northern border.


Israeli analysts have explained that Hezbollah is avenging a series of previous Israeli operations, including the elimination of several of the organization's leaders, and taking out a missile convoy from Syria to Lebanon. But is it fair to assume that after 40 years of relative calm in the Golan, Syria and Hezbollah have chosen to open a new front against Israel, when Syria is entangled in a civil war and Hezbollah is busy fighting in several different arenas as Assad battles for his very survival?


In late December, rockets were fired from Lebanese territory at the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona, and the IDF responded by firing at the launching sites. On March 5, an IDF camera spotted three militants attempting to place an explosive device on the Golan border. The army, followed by the media, was quick to conclude that these were Hezbollah men. On both occasions, no direct link to Hezbollah was ever proven. Even the most recent incident did not yield conclusive proof tying Hezbollah to the attack. The organization praised the attack, yet did not claim responsibility.


Hezbollah has never been immersed in such a prolonged and bloody war as the conflict currently being waged in Syria. Thousands of the organization's fighters are in Syria, busy fighting on the harsh battlefields of the regime's army. They also guard holy Shiite sites in Damascus, and fight Sunni jihadists and rebel forces in different parts of western Syria.


The Shiite organization made a great achievement this week when it achieved a victory in the area of Qalamoun, close to the Lebanese border, thus allowing the Syrian army and its allies to achieve full control of the Lebanon-Syria frontier. Hezbollah helped Assad to turn the tide in western Syria, a process that began in early 2013. But make no mistake - Assad's army is not winning the battle for the whole of Syria, but rather only managing to achieve relative stability in areas still under its rule.


The frustration among Syrian rebels over Assad's achievements has given rise to new battle tactics, such as initiating attacks in the heart of Hezbollah-ruled areas in Lebanon. The rebels have long since given up on receiving substantial aid along the northern border with Turkey, or the southern one with Jordan. On the eastern border with Iraq and the Shiite rule of Nouri al-Maliki is under control. And the only real aid to the rebels comes from western Iraq, from al-Qaeda.


The assistance from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia is not sufficient to claim victory, since they are aiding rival parties within the rebel forces. The rebels' last hope is the southern border, with Israel. In order to motivate the Israeli army against the Syrian army, the rebels must create the illusion that Hezbollah is opening a new front against Israel in southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights.


Last year, there were several incidents of rocket fire at Israel emanating from the Lebanese border. Jerusalem realized there was danger of the Syrian civil war spilling into Israeli territory, and responded with force to each incident. In August 2013, Israel surmised that the rocket fire on the Western Galilee had been carried out by Global Jihad agents. Not long before the recent incident in the Golan Heights, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS) claimed responsibility for laying an explosive device on the Israel-Lebanon border.


The area on the other side of Israel's border in the Golan is not under the control of neither the Syrian regime nor Hezbollah, but rather has been the scene of an intermittent war for the past two years. Despite the repeated aerial bombings in the Quneitra area, the rebels have managed to hold on to their many positions there. It is not unlikely, therefore, that the initiative to lay the explosive device on the Israel border came from those fighting Assad and Hezbollah. It is important to bear in mind that should Israel choose to attack the Syrian army, it is indirectly helping the opposition, most of whom are Islamist extremists.


Even though Hezbollah is gaining much experience and training in Syria, after losing hundreds of its fighters the organization is in no rush to take on Israel. The organization and the Assad regime will both need a great deal of recovery time before setting their sights once again on Israel. Nonetheless, the Jihadist groups, with al-Qaeda at the forefront, see Israel as the next stage in their plan to take over the entire region and establish a huge Islamic state. There is no doubt that if the Islamists do seize control of the border with Israel, we will see a frontier not dissimilar to the one with Gaza.


The rebels' pattern of behavior in Syria is akin to that of the jihadist groups in Gaza, spearheaded by Islamic Jihad. These groups are fiercely critical of the "hudna" (ceasefire) maintained by Hamas along the border with Israel. It is fair to say that one of the purposes of the delivery intercepted by Israel on the Iran weapons ship was to put an end to this truce and strengthen Islamic Jihad, which is loyal to Iran, at the expense of the rebellious Hamas, which has proven its infidelity through its support for the Syrian rebels. Islamic Jihad is making sporadic attempts to fire rockets at Israel in an effort to provoke an Israeli attack on Hamas and reignite the war in Gaza. The elimination of Hamas would mean the elevation of Islamic Jihad.


Israel cannot allow itself to suffer attacks on its territory, but must choose its targets carefully, and ensure that it is not inadvertently serving the purpose of Syria's jihadist rebels. Regretfully, the enemy of my enemy in Syria, like in Gaza, is an even more intractable foe.


Dr. Yaron Friedman, Ynet's commentator on the Arab world, is a graduate of the Sorbonne. He teaches Arabic and lectures about Islam at the Technion, at Beit Hagefen and at the Galilee Academic College. His book, "The Nusayri Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria," was published in 2010 by Brill-Leiden


פרסום ראשון: 03.21.14, 23:22
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