Over the weekend Israel enforced its “red line” policy regarding Syria, unleashing air strikes on a weapons shipment bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. But Israel faces a conundrum: how can it enforce its “red line” without coming into conflict with Assad? Moreover, how can Israel prevent its policy from strengthening the Jihadis in the Syrian rebellion, especially those in the occupied Golan Heights?
While foiling weapons transfers to Hezbollah means tacit support for the armed Syrian opposition, large and influential swathes of the Syrian opposition are becoming increasingly ideologically extreme, and that is not to Israel’s benefit either.
Since the beginning of the year, Israel has launched a number of military strikes into Syria both in response to shells fired from Syrian territory into the occupied Golan and because of fears that Syrian or Iranian weapons, including chemical ones, could fall into the hands of Hezbollah.
The two strikes over the weekend were against what Israel claimed was a “game-changing” cache of surface-to-air missiles intended for Hezbollah. The second was on a military facility (a base or a military research centre) on the outskirts of Damascus, also to prevent the shipment of something like Fateh-110 or Scud D surface-to-surface missiles from Iran to its Lebanese ally. Scud D missiles are destructive and have sufficient range to cover Israel if launched from Lebanon.
Luckily for Israel, Assad is preoccupied by Syria’s internal conflict. Hezbollah has supported Assad to the tune of 2000 soldiers, and will need to be paid, perhaps in weapons. However, dynamics in the Middle East change quickly. If Assad could see a strategic use for provoking Israel to join the fray within Syria — such as destabilising the opposition — he would not need to look hard for an excuse.
Conversely, Israel’s hindrance of Hezbollah (and Assad by default) helps the Syrian opposition. This has unintentionally meant an expansion of jihadi influence in Syrian border areas that could point to additional trouble ahead for Israel.
Global jihadists, such as members of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front that includes the al-Qaeda affiliated Jubhat al Nusra, have been moving into the Golan border region as Assad’s army, increasingly pressed for manpower on other fronts, has withdrawn. The presence of Islamic extremists in this area also risks escalation.
Cross-border fire from groups committed to destroying the state of Israel could easily spiral into a major skirmish, particularly if the opposition got its hands on chemical weapons. An even larger Israeli intervention to set up a buffer zone in Syria is also a real possibility.
The United Nations peacekeeping force that has monitored and patrolled the Golan since 1974 has also come under increasing pressure. Over the past six months, Austrian peacekeepers have been wounded, Japan and Croatia have withdrawn military support and 21 Filipino troops were ambushed and kidnapped by Syrian rebels calling themselves the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. They were later released unharmed after three days but the UN’s presence and its ability to intervene in any military escalation is tenuous.
Since its deployment in 1974, the UN peacekeeping force has helped Syria and Israel preserve a status quo that suited both sides. Some security analysts fear that the border may turn “hot” as the UN’s authority erodes, prompting jihadists to challenge Israel in order to provoke retaliation – a dynamic not dissimilar to Lebanon.
For Israel to move against the Syrian opposition to secure the Golan Heights would be an immense risk. One western diplomat said such a move would be resisted by the international community and could draw Israel into a military quagmire with either the Assad regime, jihadists or potentially both.
Whether Israel enforces the “red line” policy or not, forces hostile to the Jewish state are growing in power. It also seems both Assad and the opposition are in a position to provoke further Israeli involvement in the Syrian conflict at a time of their own strategic choosing. If Israel does not act wisely over the next few months the Syrian mayhem may begin to drag in the whole region.