The Israeli government has radically changed tack on Syria, reversing a policy and military strategy that were longed geared to opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad,DEBKAfile’s exclusive military and intelligence sources report. This reversal has come about in the light of the growing preponderance of radical Islamists in the Syrian rebel force fighting Assad’s army in the Quneitra area since June.
Al Qaeda’s Syrian Nusra front, which calls itself the Front for the Defense of the Levant, is estimated to account by now for 40-50 percent – or roughly, 4,000-5,000 Islamists – of the rebel force deployed just across Israel’s Golan border. No more than around 2,500-3,000 belong to the moderate Syrian militias, who were trained by American and Jordanian instructors in the Hashemite Kingdom and sent back to fight in Syria.
This shift in the ratio of jihadists-to-moderates has evolved in four months. In early June, the pro-Western Syrian Revolutionary Front-SRF, mostly deployed in the southern Syrian town of Deraa on the Jordanian border, was the dominant rebel force and Nusra Front the minority.
The balance shifted due to a number of factors:
1. Nusra Front jihadis fighting alongside insurgents on the various Syrian battlefronts made a practice of surreptitiously infiltrating their non-Islamist brothers-at-arms, a process which the latter’s foreign allies, the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, either ignored or were unaware of.
2. These tactics began to pay off in the past month, when large numbers of moderate rebels suddenly knocked on the Nusra Front’s door and asked to join.
One reason for this was these militias’ defeat and heavy losses of men and ground under the onslaught of the combined forces of Syria, Hizballah and Iran. Nusra Front was less affected. It was also the moderate rebels’ preferred home, rather than the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, whose atrocities, especially the beheadings of hostages and prisoners, they find repellent.
3. Nusra deployment on the Syrian Golan further swelled of late as its fighters were pushed out of eastern Syria by IS in its rapid swing through the Syrian towns of Deir a-Zor and Abu Kemal to reach its ultimate goal – one which has so far not rated a mention in Western and Israeli media.
The Islamist extremists are on the way to conquering the Euphrates basin in Syria and Iraq before advancing on the place where the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and Tigris, are in closest proximity – Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad.
Nusra fighters moved out of the way of the IS push through eastern Syria and made tracks for Quneitra to join the fight to seize this strategic Golan town and crossing into Israel from Assad’s forces.
The pro-Islamist cast of the Syrian rebel force on Israel’s Golan border is reflected in the turnaround in Israel’s military position and attitude toward the insurgents on the other side of the Golan border fence. The IDF will henceforth be less supportive of the rebel struggle and more inclined to help Syrian troops in fending off rebel attacks.
This calls for a delicate balancing act in Jerusalem. While definitely not seeking an Assad victory in the long Syrian war, Israel has no desire to see Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Al Nusra, seizing control of the Syrian sector of the Golan, including Quneitra.
Israel therefore finds itself in a quandary much like that of US President Barack Obama, who has promised to unveil his strategy for fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Wednesday, Sept. 10. He too is strongly reluctant to throw US support behind Bashar Assad, but he may find he has no other option.