If the Israeli government isn’t paying big bucks to Daniel Pipes to advise it on strategic military-political policy, it should be. When the Syrian civil war first began, Pipes wrote that Israel should favor whichever side was losing and hope both sides fought each other to a bloody stalemate. The more Arab blood spilled the better. It was a classic iteration of the British colonial “divide and conquer” strategy. To further your own control, you set all the factions and sects against each other. You ultimately side with the less powerful group and give it just enough support to ensure stalemate with the most powerful ethnic group. That way you keep the ‘natives’ at bay and yourself in control. If you’re afraid of an external neighboring, encourage instability and unrest by supporting dissident groups.
This is precisely what Israel has done regarding Iran, where the Mossad funded domestic terror by the MeK and the Sunni group, Jundallah. Meir Dagan, in an interview I featured here, spoke explicitly of this as an attempt to sabotage Iran’s government so that it would be a weaker rival. A modified version of this is operative in Syria as well. Israel’s goal is not to live in peace with its neighbors, but to ensure they are perpetually weak and divided.
Though in the beginning it appeared the Syrian rebels might have the upper hand, within the past year momentum has shifted to the regime. Israel, while claiming neutrality has, almost from the beginning, intervened against Assad. This is less because of what Assad represents, and much more because his chief allies are Israel’s sworn enemies, Iran and Hezbollah.
Until recently, Israeli intervention mainly took the form of air attacks which attempted to destroy advanced Russian or Iranian weapons systems transiting Syria on their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli war planes attacked such weapons convoys and installations at least six times over the past year or more. Another facet of Israeli intervention has been continuing collaboration between IDF special forces and Syrian Druze rebels. Over a year ago, FoxNews reported an Israeli unit crossed the border to liaise with Golani Druze rebels..
In the past month, UN peacekeeping forces have noted equally unusual IDF activity on or near the border. I’ve already posted about the establishment of what appears to be an Islamist rebel base under Israeli protection and directly on the border. They’ve also noted packages of what appear to be military supplies ferried over the border by the IDF into Syria. What’s astonishing about this is which rebels Israel is helping. They are not the Free Syrian Army, known as a “moderate” entity within the rebel movement, as it appears largely a spent force. Instead, they’re allied with the al-Nusra Front, a former Al Qaeda affiliate. A number of media outlets have reported this. But the most recent is one from Le Canard Enchaine, which claims to be based on French intelligence sources. The story says that Israel is supplying ‘military hardware’ to the Islamist movement.
Remember this the next time you hear Bibi Netanyahu blather on about Islamist extremism lurking on Israel’s borders. If Islamism truly threatens Israel, why is Israel making common cause with it? If the Islamists were to win the war and took over Syria, how long would it be before al-Nusra turned its sights on Israel itself? Such phenomena have already happened in Israel’s history with regional Islamism. As I’ve written here, neither Hezbollah nor Hamas would have swept to prominence and power as quickly without crucial early assistance from Israeli intelligence. In both cases, Israel’s strategy was to sabotage the power of Fatah within Palestinian and Lebanese societies. The same process could happen in Syria.
The difference is that Israel doesn’t want al Nusra to win the war. It wants the rebels to fight the regime to a stalemate. If it found the rebels winning it might turn around and aid Assad. It’s purely cynical self-interest as defined by which of two scuzzy enemies is least bad.
In this Maariv report, Jackie Hugi ponders a related important question: if ISIS and al-Nusra are the confirmed Islamists they claim, why aren’t they attacking Israel? For example, I’ve speculated here that ISIS must’ve had some inkling that Israeli-American captive, Steven Sotloff, was Jewish. Yet in none of its propaganda did it refer to this. I believe there are strategic reasons why it didn’t. Right now, Islamists have their eyes on the prize that is most important to them: battling their Shiite adversaries in Syria and Iraq. They know that if they succeed there is plenty of time later to turn their attention to other enemies. But taking on Shiites AND Israel is too much for anyone to handle. Here is Hugi:
These contacts [between the IDF and rebels] go some way to explaining why the armed rebels take pains not to attack Israel. At this time, they have a greater goal: to topple Assad and establish their rule in territory they liberated from him. If they perform acts of terror against Israel they will create a second enemy, greater and more dangerous than the Syrian regime, which could bring upon them disaster.
It’s possible that in future, if they succeed in their mission, they will change this policy. But in the meantime, the establishment of contacts with Israel is an important part of creating a permanent institutionalized presence in the region.
…Jerusalem must ask itself some difficult questions: can its bet on the rebels pay off? Or does stability on the northern border depend on the continuation of the regime? Support for these sectarian groups carries many dangers. Their trustworthiness fluctuates, as do the figures who lead them. He who today will not act against Israel may change his spots [literally “shed his skin”] tomorrow.
…Israeli policy over the past few decades has been characterized by a series of bad bets. At the end of the 1980s, it enabled Hamas to rise from the midst of Gaza’s Islamist groups. It did this out of the flawed assumption that this was the proper way to weaken Fatah…As a result [Israel] created its own Trojan Horse [within Palestine].
With the IDF’s entrance [sic] into Lebanon in 1982, Israel disregarded the Shiites and rushed to ally itself with those it saw as the most powerful in the land: the Christians. So it paved the way for Teheran to offer protection to the disadvantaged and enable the rise of Hezbollah.
Today, sometimes it seems like Israel doesn’t realize the advantages of the [Syrian] regime.
When you watch the Vice hasbara video above touting the IDF’s humanitarian work caring for seriously wounded Syrian rebels, remember the reason they’re doing this. First, to curry favor with world media. But even more importantly, to conceal the budding military-intelligence alliance with former Al Qaeda fighters. Israel and Islamists conniving together against Assad is bad optics. There’s nothing noble or altruistic about it, though the Vice reporter allows his viewers to believe this. The cynicism inherent in the gesture points to the Likudists making common cause with an enemy whose ideology they detest, but with whom it’s worth doing business to advance temporary national interests.
So let me be the still small voice of morality here: if you believe your cause is just and even noble, when you lie down with monsters, you wake up with an indelible stain. Everything good you represent is turned to dust.
Finally, there is only one “good” thing to be said for al Nusra–they’re not ISIS.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.