Yes, Israel is supporting Syrian rebels, but this goes beyond cash and aid: Israel hopes the rebels will serve as a buffer against Hezbollah and a resurgent Assad, a strategy that could easily backfire
Featured image: An Israeli soldier stands atop a tank on the Golan Heights (Source: EIPA)
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with a Syrian rebel commander and half a dozen fighters, who confirmed the worst kept secret of the Syrian conflict: Israel is directly aiding Syrian rebel factions with both humanitarian and financial aid.
Israel’s involvement “is much deeper and more coordinated than previously known and entails direct funding of opposition fighters near its border for years,” the report said.
“Israel stood by our side in a heroic way,” Moatasem al-Golani, a spokesman for the rebel group Fursan al-Joulan, told the Wall Street Journal. “We wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.”
According to the report, Israel provides $5,000 each month to Fursan al-Joulan – or Knights of the Golan – which it uses to pay fighters’ salaries and purchase weapons and ammunition for its campaigns against the government in the Syrian Golan.
I had never heard of Fursan al-Joulan before. An online site dedicated to documenting the Syrian conflict describes a “Fouj al Joulan” as a Golani militia allied with the Assad regime and dedicated to protecting Druze villages in the region. Though the names sound similar, they are unlikely to be the same group, especially considering Fouj al-Joulan’s commander, Majd Himoud, is an implacable Israeli enemy, whom it has attempted to assassinate twice.
With approximately 400 fighters, Fursan al-Joulan would appear to be a local militia. It undoubtedly has an affiliation with a larger Islamist group like al-Nusra or al-Qaeda, but I haven’t been able to determine that. The Journal makes clear that it isn’t affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, which increases the likelihood that Fursan al-Joulan is an Islamist group. It’s also quite possible there are other groups, perhaps numerous ones, which Israel is aiding in a similar fashion.
On 22 June, Yediot Achronot’s chief military-security correspondent, Alex Fishman, confirmed the Journal’s report and explored the motivation behind it:
“A not insignificant portion of the Syrian rebels in the Golan have adopted the extreme Salafist ideology of Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda…The Israeli view is that the religious extremist views of the Syrian rebels are less relevant [than their capacity to combat Israel’s enemies – Iran and Hezbollah]. Israel believes that what interests them [the rebels] above all is survival; and that it’s possible to buy their loyalty through material aid which helps guarantee their own security.
“The Journal article gives one the impression that Israel doesn’t always examine closely the views of its allies as long as it gets from them a useful security exchange. According to Israel’s perspective, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And if Jabhat al-Nusra fights against IS in the southern Golan, and each of them in turn fights against Hezbollah and the Syrian army in the Deraa region – all the better.”
This exchange-based mode of interaction may work for Israel in the short run, but the history of the region is replete with such temporary alliances which quickly devolved into outright hostility when circumstances changed. A former ally can easily and quickly become one’s worst enemy.
And in fact the goods, experience and skills transmitted during the alliance permit the former ally to become an even more formidable foe (just think the Mujahadeen-Taliban in Afghanistan). Any number of actors inside Syria from IS to al-Nusra could at some future time decide that Israel is a riper target than their former enemies. This short-term alliance of convenience could easily become a nightmarish Golem of Israel’s own making.
What Israel wants
These new reports confirm several years of my own reporting which have documented extensive Israeli intervention in the Syrian conflict, including numerous air strikes against Hezbollah and Iranian arms convoys, the shooting down of a Syrian jet which had strayed a few metres into Israeli-occupied Golan, assassinations of Hezbollah and Iranian commanders, equipment drops to al-Nusra units allied with al-Qaeda, and direct intelligence briefings between IDF officers and rebel commanders.
All this has belied the repeated false claims in the media (including in this WSJ article) that Israel is a neutral party to the conflict – which is what Israel would have the world believe. However, it is deeply involved in it and seeks to weaken or topple Bashar al-Assad, because Israel’s arch enemies, Hezbollah and Iran, are his chief allies.
I expect that Israeli escalation will continue since Assad and his allies are in the ascendant. They are routing IS in eastern Syria and, once they finish, it’s very possible Assad could turn his attention to the west, including the Golan, to consolidate his territorial gains. That is when the true test will come.
Israel wants a divided Syria. It wants a country riven by ethnic and religious disputes so that it can dominate the Golan and protect its northern border. How far is it willing to go to prevent Assad from reasserting full control there?
Israel has had numerous opportunities to negotiate a peace deal with Bashar al-Assad and, even earlier, with his father. It turned away from each of these efforts. It does not want an agreement with Assad.
To avoid an internal political fight with nationalist forces over returning the Golan, Israel’s right-wing government prefers maintaining its illegal conquest of the Golan and the status quo. To do so, it must continue to sow discord and military adventures in the Golan.
Shot across the bows
Numerous ominous escalations in the Syria conflict have occurred in recent days. Iran announced that it had fired missiles from its territory to attack IS positions in eastern Syria. It would mean that Iranian forces had advanced technically in order to fire its weapons and hit targets hundreds of miles away. The last time it attacked an enemy beyond its borders in this way was during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Anonymous Israeli military sources claimed that each of the seven missiles that were fired missed their target, with several not even landing in Syria. However, aside from unnamed sources, the Israelis didn’t offer any proof of their claims either. It would be in Israel’s interest to spread a spurious claim debunking the military prowess of its chief regional rival.
Iran explained that the missile attack was revenge for a recent terror attack by Iranian Kurds in Tehran for which IS has taken credit. Since Iran has also blamed Saudi Arabia for the attack, which killed 17, mostly civilians, the missile attack is a thinly veiled warning against the Saudis: “just as we can reach IS in Syria, we can reach you in Riyadh as well.”
Or as Al Jazeera’s correspondent said:
“And, of course, we need to see this in the wider geopolitical context: it will be very interesting what the reaction is going to be from countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, because Iran is saying it can retaliate and it will.”
On 18 June, a US fighter jet downed a Syrian war plane in the Raqqa countryside which had bombed a target close to US-backed Syrian rebel forces. The US military claims these were Syrian Democratic Forces (whom Syrian regime troops had routed from the city), while the regime claims they were IS. US air power also shot down at least two pro-regime drones.
Fear of Assad victory
All this comes on the heels of Assad’s growing success in taking back territory that had been formerly held by IS. The US, in attacking Syrian war planes, is attempting to stymie Assad’s efforts. This means, in effect, that US policy largely mirrors that of Israel. The Trump administration, as well, appears not to want a united Syria, rather a Syria divided up into ethnic cantons.
Assad’s Russian ally reacted with fury to the US attack and cancelled critical deconfliction efforts meant to keep the various powers fighting in Syria from accidentally attacking each other (US officials have since said that a deconfliction hotline is still in operation). Further, Russia announced that any more US attacks on the Syrian air force might result in direct conflict with Russia.
All this is part of a US escalation of its own involvement which has included bombing a Syrian government military convoy, a mosque, and now this. Clearly, the Trump administration is directing our military to flex its muscles in this arena.
The problem is that this is a very crowded field of battle and there are many parties involved, including Russia. The plane we shot down was a Russian Sukhoi bomber, for example. All it will take is one split-second mistake for this to turn into a major bloodbath which could suck the major parties in far deeper than they prefer to go.
The new alliance
Syria is only part of a wider playing field of conflict in the region where Sunni forces, financed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, are arrayed against Shia power under the auspices of Iran and Hezbollah.
As the Sunni coalition continues to lose sway in Syria, this rivalry has moved to newer and even more dangerous places. The ultimatum given to Qatar to end its relations with Iran and Hezbollah is an example of how the ripple effects of Syria could send a tsunami throughout the Middle East.
A growing alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel adds yet another combustible element to the mix. They both appear to be itching for a fight with Iran. When they were separate parties, the danger of such a conflict was less.
With them uniting against a common foe, the fetters are considerably loosened, not to mention that the ascension of a young, ambitious, hot-headed Saudi crown prince who’s shown himself only too willing to embroil his kingdom in foreign interventions adds even more danger to the scenario.
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the upcoming collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).
Qatar May Be Turning Its Back on the US Dollar — and We All Know What That Means
Late last week, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that are involved in attempting to isolate Qatar sent the tiny Gulf nation a list of 13 demands. They are insisting that Qatar meet these demands within ten days or face unspecified further action.
The list of demands includes Qatar shutting down Al-Jazeera and its affiliate stations; shutting down other news outlets that Qatar funds, including Middle East Eye; curbing diplomatic ties with Iran and expelling members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard; terminating the Turkish military presence in Qatar; consenting to monthly audits for the first year following acceptance of the demands, and aligning itself entirely with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially, and economically – to name but a few.
The most ludicrous of the demands is that Qatar must end its interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Qatar does interfere in a number of countries, including Libya and Syria, but as the German Foreign Minister explained, this list of demands directly challenges Qatar’s sovereignty. Who is interfering with whose sovereignty, exactly?
Unsurprisingly, Qatar has dismissed the list of demands as neither reasonable nor actionable. Surely, the Saudi-led anti-Qatar alliance is aware of this. It would be tantamount to asking Great Britain to shut down the BBC and expel American troops – it just wouldn’t happen. All of the world’s major newspapers are complicit in running state-sanctioned propaganda, and singling Al-Jazeera out is hardly fair or practical.
In that context, Saudi Arabia and its friends have given Qatar a list of demands they cannot conceivably meet and imposed a ten-day deadline to concede or face unspecified further action. Qatar was essentially doomed from the start of this rift, and it’s only just beginning. As Newsweek lamented,
“the demands are designed to be impossible to comply with.”
The UAE has warned that Qatar is now facing indefinite isolation and that the economic and political sanctions are likely to become permanent. Taken together with the recent promotion of the Saudi King’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, now first in line to the throne, things are indeed heating up against Qatar. Prince Salman is widely regarded as one of the main proponents behind the Saudi-Qatar rift.
The ultimate agenda of the Saudi-led alliance is to deter Qatar from continuing its relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional arch rival. But even the Guardian notes that “cutting ties to Iran would prove incredibly difficult,” as Iran and Qatar share a massive offshore natural gas field that supplies Qatar with much of its wealth. In fact, Iran immediately came to Qatar’s aid and began supplying the country with food after the Saudi-led sanctions created a shortage within the country. Shaking off Iran and Turkey —the two countries that have stood by Qatar’s side during this feud — is almost unthinkable. Qatar would be left without a single ally on either side of the Middle East region.
Qatar was initially among a handful of countries, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that wanted to install a natural gas pipeline through Syria and into Europe. Instead, the Syrian government turned to Iran and Iraq to run a pipeline eastward and cut out the formerly mentioned countries completely. This is precisely why Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been among some of the heaviest backers of the Syrian opposition fighters. This pipeline dispute pitted the Sunni Gulf States against the Shia-dominated bloc of Iran, Iraq, and Syria (Syria’s president is from a minority denomination of the Shia sect of Islam). Although Iran and Qatar shared this lucrative gas field, they were directly at odds in regard to how the field should have been utilized.
Not long after Bashar al-Assad’s proposed deal with Iran and Iraq was announced, foreign fighters began to flood the country. Syria was demonized at the outset, even though then-Secretary of State John Kerry dined with Assad two years before the conflict erupted. It should be clear that Washington’s issues with Assad are not rooted in human rights concerns considering the dictator had been in power for 11 years and was notorious for human rights abuses in the period before the so-called revolution began.
Though Qatar has been heavily involved in arming the Syrian opposition and calling for Assad’s departure (Assad being an integral Iranian ally), Qatar actually maintains an independent foreign policy agenda of its own. Over the past two years, Qatar has conducted over $86 billion worth of transactions in Chinese Yuan and has signed other agreements with China that encourage further economic cooperation.
This is incredibly important because Qatar shares its major natural gas reserve with Iran, and Iran also conducts its oil-related business deals with China in Yuan. Shortly after the nuclear accord reached in 2015, the Islamic Republic sought to capitalize on these economic opportunities by ramping up production on their share of the Iran-Qatari gas reserve. In November 2016, Iran signed a deal with France’s Total, a multinational integrated oil and gas company, to develop this project. Iran is expected to surpass Qatar’s gas production by next year, and Qatar was left with little choice but to join the venture. It lifted a self-imposed ban on developing the gas field in April of this year.
If Iran and Qatar continue down this path, the U.S.’ self-asserted hegemony over the world’s financial markets will directly come under attack, and rising economic and military powers like Russia and China will continue to reap the benefits.
Remember that Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails confirmed that the U.S. and France were so concerned with attacking Muammar Gaddafi in Libya not out of humanitarian concern, but rather, out of fear of his plan to unite Africa under a single gold-backed currency that would be used to buy and sell oil on the global markets.
Remember that in 2000, Saddam Hussein announced he would sell Iraqi oil in euros, and the Guardian reported in 2003 that Iraq had actually netted a handsome profit in doing so — at least until the U.S. invaded not long after and immediately switched the sale of oil back to U.S. dollars.
Perhaps it sounds like a conspiracy theory (even with Clinton’s leaked emails as evidence), but it’s important to ask why Saudi Arabia is so concerned with Qatar, if not for economic reasons? Because of Qatar’s support for terrorism? Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails also revealed that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar financially sponsored ISIS – making such a rationale hypocritical beyond belief.
Pot. Kettle. Black.
The push to oust Assad in Syria has almost all but failed, and Qatar, learning from its mistakes, is not relying on Assad’s departure to maintain its vast supply of wealth (though it would probably still welcome such a move). As Counterpunch explains:
“The failure of this insurgency, however, has spelled the death of this proposal, leaving Qatar bound to look East to Asia – already their biggest customers – for their LNG markets. But most of the existing Eastbound LNG pipeline infrastructure is controlled by Iran. For Qatar, then, cutting its Iran links would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. This is why the Saudis aim to demonstrate that the alternative is having their entire face cut off.”
How far in Saudi Arabia’s face-cutting agenda against Qatar these Gulf State adversaries will go is unclear, but Qatar has already seen some heavy-handed treatment in the early stages of this conflict. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the region, with 11,000 troops currently stationed there.
Further, the U.S. just recently implemented a policy to target Iran for regime change. President Trump met with Saudi Arabia and the GCC nations earlier this year and sword-danced and sabre-rattled his way down a warpath with Iran. Trump’s military has been striking down Iranian drones and Iranian-backed troops in Syria, and the White House has just launched fresh accusations against the Syrian government regarding an attack that hasn’t even happened yet.
Clearly, Qatar cannot meet Saudi Arabia’s demands, and Saudi Arabia must be completely aware of this. As we have seen in Yemen and Syria, Saudi Arabia almost always resorts to outright brutality in order to bully non-compliant states into submission. As we have also seen in America’s treatment of Iraq and Libya, countries that depart from the U.S. dollar are not met kindly by the American military, either.
In this context, expect this rift to heat up on multiple fronts. We may very well be witnessing Qatar’s denigration into a Syrian or Yemeni-style battlefield in the months to come.
Let’s hope this is not the case.
Featured image from Anti Media