Visiting Israeli analyst Ehud Ya’ari on the emerging “Southern Front” in the Syrian civil war
by Gordon Campbell
Will the civil war in Syria soon be shifting its focus to the south of the country, thereby bringing Israel’s role in the conflict into the spotlight? For the past 12 months, a bloody stalemate has been the norm: a balance of sorts has emerged between the government troops of the Assad regime and its Hizbollah ally on one hand, and the rebel forces on the other. The rebels have splintered between (a) any number of local and regional militia (b) the so called “moderates” of the Free Syrian Army supported by the West, and (c) the rebel units of Sunni extremist fighters.
Among the rebel extremists, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have been the most prominent players. Both have links – and historical beefs – with al-Qaeda. Ironically, most of the foreign fighters in Syria ( from places such as Chechnya as well as from Iraq) have allied themselves with ISIS, which has been acting in open defiance of al-Qaeda’ s nominal chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
To date, ISIS and JN have mainly been active in the population centres of northern, eastern and central Syria, relatively far from the Israel/Jordan border. For the past year, they have also been engaged in fierce fighting with each other – almost as much as in they have been in fighting the Assad regime. By some estimates, 3,000 ISIS and JN fighters have been killed in this internecine fighting, since January alone. However….if and when they do resolve their differences, JN, ISIS and their allies can be expected to shift their attention to the south.
In that respect, Israel has only limited time to prepare for their arrival in force. As indicated below, Israel has been busily engaged in using the time available. So have its conservative allies in the region, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The rebellion against Assad may have begun in the southern city of Deraa – yet ever since, the rebels have complained about the lack of sufficient supplies of sophisticated weaponry from the West, and elsewhere. That may finally be about to change.
In mid February, the Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia has begun delivery of large amounts of such weaponry to rebels in the south. This has occurred amid the formation of a “ Southern Front” led by the wealthy businessman and influential clan leader, Bashar al-Zoubi [pictured left]. In September 2013, the Syria Comment site listed a-Zoubi as being the only secular figure among the top five rebel commanders in Syria – in that he has been the only major rebel leader not to publicly express a wish to turn the new Syria into an Islamic state.
Time will tell whether al-Zoubi and the “Southern Front” survives his new prominence. Certainly the recent spate of news stories that are calling him the most important leader of the Syrian rebellion – and one with ties, according to the WSJ, to a clandestine US/Saudi/Jordanian operations room located in Amman – will make him a prime target for assassination. The “moderate” Free Syrian Army also has a new commander, Abdel Ilah al-Bashir.
A more basic point is one that Werewolf recently explored with the visiting Israeli political commentator, Ehud Ya’ari. Namely, what did Israel see as the best possible outcome of the war in Syria:
(a) the continuance of the stalemate
(b) the survival of a weakened Assad regime militarily dependent on Hizbollah or
(c) a rebel victory, even if that delivered a new and fractious regime likely to be militarily dominated by Sunni extremists linked to al Qaeda? Was Israel likely to choose co-existence with Assad – given that he has tacitly accepted Israel’s role in the Golan – or a regime change likely to bring a hostile unknown right onto the doorstep of Israel and Jordan ?
Ya’ari [pictured below] is one of the most experienced media personalities in Israel, and is very well connected to Israel’s political elite. For him, the immediate and over-riding goal is clear: “Assad has to go….Israel and Jordan have reached a conclusion that they share an interest in preventing the Assad forces ( to the extent that they still can, which is very limited) from recapturing land in the south. Because we both believe that the best outcome for the civil war in Syria would be for Assad to go. Certainly that’s the case for Israel. The devil we know is worse than the devil we don’t know.”
What’s the logic behind that preference, given the risk – in the short term at least – of strengthening the hand of forces sympathetic to al-Qaeda? We don’t necessarily see it in this light. We see that we want Assad to go. If Assad goes, Hizbollah will then be enclosed in an enclave in south Lebanon. That’s a major strategic goal for us. Number two : We don’t buy the argument that the alternative to Assad is al-Qaeda, whether it be JN or ISIS or both. We don’t think so. We think we can identify among the multitude of rebel groups enough forces worthy of support.”
Perhaps. Yet to date, the quest of Israel, the US and Europe to find a rebel alternative they can wholeheartedly support – ie, a relatively secular commander with a credible presence on the battlefield and some geo-political awareness – has come up empty. Too many of those on whom the West has pinned its fleeting hopes have proved to be more credible fighters in the air-conditioned airport lounges of the Gulf than on the ground in Syria. Conversely, the successful rebel fighters have no interest in being pawns of the West. For that reason, wouldn’t any role played by Israel have to be conducted at arms length, given the potential for being tainted by association with Israel?
“We are not going to intervene in the Syrian civil war,” Ya’ari replies flatly. “The way to do is through the local indigenous militias that sprang up all over the area.” Many of the younger rebel commanders in the south, he says, are really impressive, and respect the village elders in the villages and hamlets. (Often not the case elsewhere.) Plus: “Because of the military need to do so, we have their backs.”
So in effect, these southern rebel militia serve as a de facto buffer zone for Israel? “We have their backs. The Syrian Army cannot attack them because we are there. The Jordanians are there. Secondly, they are cut off by the Syrian army – or what remains of the Syrian Army – from supplies from Damascus etc Therefore Israel – and for its part, Jordan – are providing all the civilian and humanitarian needs of the population. We are talking about fuel, medication, heaters, everything – it is all coming from Israel. There are Israeli hospitals there now.”
OK. So, given the extent of Israel’s commitment, is the stalemate in the civil war therefore not sustainable? “On the contrary – I think if the appropriate assistance is not coming to the right rebels then two things will happen (a) Assad may last, as exhausted and over stretched as his force are, He is controlling less than 40% of the country. Mainly the M5 highway. Secondly, the humanitarian disaster will continue. And we have learned over three years of the civil war that the parties that have gained most from the expansion of the civil war are the two al-Qaeda wings. It makes both a moral sense and a political sense to put an end to the war as fast as possible.”
Israel’s support and protection for the local rebel militia in southern Syria serves several purposes for it. Immediately of course, it assists in the overthrow of the Assad regime, and – arguably – creates a bulwark against those rebel forces who are even more hostile to Israel than they are to Assad. Look at the map of the region, Ya’ari says, and there is now a 500 mile swathe from Baghdad to north of the Euphrates in Syria that is controlled by the Sunni rebel forces linked – however fractiously – to al Qaeda. The same people essentially, he says, who are fighting the al-Maliki government in Iraq.
There is a wider backdrop for these events. Israel’s strategy in Syria is part of its ongoing attempt to align itself with the conservative Sunni regimes in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and some of the Gulf States. For decades now, these states have been ranged against the revolutionary Sh’ite regime of Iran, and its surrogate in Lebanon, Hizbollah. Assad’s Syria has been seen as part of that bloc, and his removal would serve the grander purpose of isolating Iran, and penning up Hizbollah in Lebanon. The flipside ? In his speech on March 4 to the AIPAC conference in Washington DC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined – amid a great deal of sabre rattling against Iran – a shimmering vision whereby Israel could unite its technological know-how with the entrepreneurial drive of the Gulf states, to the mutual prosperity of all the friendly Arab regimes in the region etc etc. To wit:
Many Arab leaders — and believe me, this is a fact, not a hypothesis, it’s a fact — many Arab leaders today already realize that Israel is not their enemy, that peace with the Palestinians would turn our relations with them and with many Arab countries into open and thriving relationships. (Applause.)
The combination of Israeli innovation and Gulf entrepreneurship, to take one example — I think this combination could catapult the entire region forward. I believe that together, we can resolve actually some of the region’s water and energy problems. You know, Israeli has half the rainfall we had 65 years ago. We have 10 times the population. Our GDP has shot up, thank God — GDP per capita, up. So we have half the rainfall, 10 times the population, and our water use goes up. And which country in the world doesn’t have water problems? Yep. Israel. (Applause.)
Why? Because of technology, of innovation, of systems. We could make that available to our Arab neighbors throughout the region that is not exactly blessed with water. We could solve the water problems. We could solve the energy problems. We could improve agriculture. We could improve education with e-learning, health with diagnostics on the Internet. All of that is possible. We could better the lives of hundreds of millions. So we all have so much to gain from peace.
Peace, of course, means peace with the Palestinians, and the avhioevement of the fabled ‘two state’ solution. Currently, the initiative launched last year by US Secretary of State John Kerry is the latest quest for that elusive “two state” phantom. Leave aiside that the “ two state” solution would – at best – create a Palestinian state on a slim residue of Palestinian land bi-sected and hedged with Israeli settlements. Leave aside too, the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine’s “representative” in the Kerry process has dubious credentials for the job, in that his term as president of the Palestinian Authority expired years ago. ( The only credible alternative – Hamas – is unacceptable to the West.)
All that aside, has Kerry any hope of reaching a solution, and what can the Kerry process credibly hope to achieve ? Despite the rampant scepticism elsewhere, Ya-ari belieives that a statement of sorts by Kerry is nigh, but he carefully spells out how limited it will be. At best, Kerry will achieve only a ‘framework for negotiations.’ That’s a very important term, he says. “ It is not a framework agreement. It will not be a DOP, a declaration of principles. It will be a set of watered-down terms of reference for further negotiations. To which the Americans have not presented their paper yet. It will four, or five pages. To this they will attach a letter of reservations by President Abbas. and a letter of reservations and qualifications by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The three documents together are supposed – according to the Kerry game plan – to allow the parties to agree to extend negotiations by another 18 months. This, they can achieve. Whether they came go from there and achieve the elusive final status end of conflict agreement … that’s a different matter.”
Even the route to that limited destination faces a major roadblock – namely the insistence by Netanyahu in his AIPAC speech that the Palestinians have to recognise the state of Israel. Given the historical freight this would entail – in effect, it is requiring the Palestinians to validate their oppression – will this insistence, as some have already surmised, derail the Kerry process altogether ? Or, given that this issue is used for rhetorical purposes by both sides of the conflict, can “ the recognition of Israel” somehow be ring-fenced, in order to allow for progress on other fronts?
Ya’ ari agrees that it can be ring-fenced. “Forget about the rhetoric, “ he says gruffly. “Lots of rhetorics. I think that the Kerry people have a language to put in the preamble of the outline which will allow Bibi [Netanyahu] to say, ‘I have the recognition of a Jewish state’, and which will allow Abbas no to say ‘No, you don’t really have it.’ Its really just a matter of diplomatic language. I think this is there. already.”
For now, the fighting in Syria remains the cockpit of Middle East geo-political maneouvring – and of humanitarian concern. In the north, ISIS has taken the tactical decision to occupy ground, impose sharia law and expand from that base. JN seems far more willing to engage with other, sympathetic groups and to treat the winning of the war as the strategic imperative. One of the outcomes of the ISIS approach has been the oppression of Christians in the areas that ISIS controls, including the imposition of a punitive “dhimmi” status and related “jizya” tax upon their communities. The theological basis for the “dhimmi/jizya ” tax is explained here.
When questioned about it, Ya’ ari sees its pragmatic aim, and its implications for New Zealand. Assad is from a minority community [ the Alawites] the Christians are likewise. “Christians mostly co-operated with Assad, like other minorities. This is the point ISIS is making [ with the dhimmi/jizya tax] as a sort of punishment. It’s not the money. I said to one of your government ministers today – you will have Christians from Syria knocking on Australia’s door, Canada’s door, New Zealand’s door pretty soon. They will not be able to stay in the country, just like the Christians in Iraq were not able to stay – and just like the Christians are now leaving en masse from Egypt.”
More immediately, the timeframe for southern Syria to prepare for the arrival of ISIS, JN and their allies is shrinking by the day. The fierce split between the two wings of the al-Qaeda franchise are being addressed. “Mediation efforts are underway,” Ya’ari says, “and I would expect it shouldn’t take took long before we will see some form of accommodation between JN and ISIS.” If so, Assad and Hizbollah may have their hands full. By most estimates, JN and ISIS together number about 40-50,000 fighters – though the numbers are notoriously inaccurate – while the army still loyal to Assad is about 70,000.
The quality of arms funnelled to the “moderate” rebels will be crucial. If only because Israel and Jordan have only a limited time to prepare a credible “Southern Front” to offset the likes of JN, ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham ? “Right,” Ya’ari concludes. “That’s why while he was in Washington, I’m sure Bibi was talking to Obama about the need to bring an end to the Syrian civil war.”