The 40-year lull at Golan Heights is unraveling by Shahab Jafry
So the Arab spring rebels finally reached the Syrian-Israeli “border” and the first stray Al Qaeda bullets begin rattling the nerves of those stationed across the Golan Heights – and across the Atlantic. It was natural that most of the 20,000 regular troops stationed at the Golan Heights were relocated as fighting intensified near Damascus. In fact, had Bashar’s inner core been a tad smarter, the withdrawal would have been sounded much earlier, making way for Jabhat al-Nusra – the local Al Qaeda affiliate – and impressing upon Israelis, and their American friends, the real danger of playing Afghanistan Part-3 in Syria, using the Saudi jihadi card to unseat leaders unpopular in Washington.
It is interesting that this development was followed by the announced merger between Iraqi and Syrian Al Qaeda outfits, and reports that Jabhat al-Nusra’s imposition of Shari’a law in parts of Aleppo and Racca has led to serious differences within the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), the face of the opposition that Americans and Turks wish to portray to the world. In reality, though, the FSA’s influence has waned considerably in comparison to Jabhat al-Nusra over the last year. And since theirs is an expansionist agenda, not confined to Syria’s borders, it is finally dawning on some players that Baath’s brutes weren’t nearly as bad as the petrodollar mullahs that Wahabi monarchies have funneled into the country in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The 40-year lull at the Golan Heights, achieved after painstaking deliberations between the Americans, Soviets, Israelis and Bashar’s father Hafez following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, has started to unravel. UNDOF, the United Nations observer force on the Golan Heights is disintegrating – some members have withdrawn their contingents, others are entertaining similar thoughts – and the Israeli military is fortifying the border.
“We’re seeing terror organisations gaining footholds increasingly in the territory,” Israeli military chief Lt Gen Benny Gantz said last week, the first admission that Tel Aviv’s concerns are shifting. Till now it was happy helping tighten the noose around Damascus, but a fresh fear is now emerging. “For now they are fighting Assad. Guess what? We are next in line,” Gen Gantz added.
Yet there seems little appreciation of these dangers where it matters. John Kerry’s whirlwind tours to the region invariably reinforce the Saudi-Qatari-Turkish position of strengthening the rebels, providing them with training, arms, and Syria’s seat at the Arab League. Sure, there’s the occasional chatter about ensuring arms smuggled into Syria don’t fall into the Jabhat’s hands, yet there is never any mention of who might be arming these radicals so successfully, or what mechanism could possibly ensure supplies don’t end in their warehouses.
With the collective diplomatic and military weight of the US, EU, GCC, Turkey and Israel bearing down so heavily on Damascus, it is only a matter of time before the capital is exhausted. The most likely outcome is a partitioning of Syria, with the now ruling Alawis retreating to the Mediterranean coastland around Latakia, Bashar’s hometown, and rebels continuing the fight for Damascus.
Syria is a rare prize for the Salafi core of Al Qaeda, raised on long years of indoctrination focused on nurturing hatred against two prime groups, the “yahood” infesting the holy land, and the Shia concentrated in Iran and Iraq. By taking Syria, they come within striking distance of both. It will be interesting to see if differences begin to emerge between official FSA sponsors, especially as infighting intensifies on ground. There are already numerous accounts of rebel commanders’ unhappiness with the Jabhat’s designs for Syria. Al Qaeda is not fighting the dictatorship to establish a people’s government, a secular democracy or a functioning market economy. They want their own obscure caliphate back, and will die trying.
Bashar called Turkey’s PM Erdogan “foolish and immature” for continuing arming and sheltering the FSA, warning of years if not decades of war should Syria really break. But while Ankara’s position is still the same, could it be that the Israelis are finally beginning to see the truth in the assertions of a long-time enemy, whose fall has been their core objective for decades? Soon Tel Aviv’s most fearsome nemesis will change from Hezbollah and its Iranian backers to Al Qaeda proper, whose uprisings will almost definitely envelop the region far beyond Syria. It is already pretty much underway in Iraq.
Things will still get much worse, and more confusing, before they get any better in the Syrian civil war, which has already taken close to 100,000 lives. Going by the trend, with Al Nusra gaining ground and influence, the Israeli border will come under frequent rocket and mortar attack, forcing Tel Aviv to strike at rebel advances it has so far backed. And once CIA drones begin targeting bloating Jabhat encampments, much to the dislike of regional power blocs that have invested so much in the war, some loyalties are bound to shift.
The writer is Middle East correspondent, Pakistan Today, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org