JERUSALEM — The disintegration of the Syrian state into warring enclaves is bringing with it new challenges and threats for Israel. Alarm bells have now been sounded on Israel's shared northern border with Syria.
"For the moment, they [Jihadis] are not fighting us, but we know their ideology. . . . It could be that, in the coming months, we could find ourselves dragged into confrontation with them," said a top-level Israel Defense Forces officer.
In addition to the Jihadi threat, the Iran-sponsored terrorist entity Hezbollah remains Israel's most potent security threat in the north. Just last month, Israel reportedly struck a Syrian weapons convoy on its way to Hezbollah.
Evidence is now beginning to emerge of the methods the Jewish state is adopting to meet this new reality.
Since mid-2012, Syria has been effectively divided into three enclaves. The first of these is the area controlled by the Bashar Assad regime, supported by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The second is an area under the rule of a confusing mass of rebel forces, mainly consisting of Sunni Islamist militias. The third, in the far north-east, is an area controlled by Syria's Kurds.
Israel's new challenge derives from the second of these enclaves. Regarding the first and the third, there is no confusion. Assad is an enemy, and his Iranian backers constitute the most dangerous alliance currently threatening the Jewish state. In February, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited an Israeli field hospital treating wounded Syrians, placing the blame squarely on the Mullah Regime: "All the children wounded, to say nothing of those killed, were harmed as a result of Iran arming, financing, and training the Assad regime in the mass slaughter it is perpetrating."
The Kurds in the north, meanwhile, are generally favorably inclined towards Israel and the feeling is mutual. This, however, has little practical import.
The new security threat derives from the rebel-controlled zones, and in particular those in southern Syria, close to the border with Israel. Three powerful, Al-Qaeda-linked Salafi militias have emerged to a prominent position in the rebellion. Two of them, Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) openly proclaim themselves to be franchises of the Al-Qaeda network. The third, Ahrar al-Sham, is of similar Salafi jihadi outlook, but with less of a clear connection with core Al-Qaeda leadership.
Major General Aviv Kochavi, head of IDF Military Intelligence, recently estimated that up to 30,000 salafi jihadis were now fighting in Syria.
The main strength of the Al-Qaeda-linked and Salafi militias is in the north and east of Syria, far from the border with Israel. ISIS controls a large swath of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Nusra holds an area of the north.
The possession by Al-Qaeda-linked groups of a de facto sovereign area in Syria is itself a matter of deep concern for Israel and the west. It enables the jihadis to train and organize in the Levant in a way which has never been possible before.
A recently apprehended jihadi cell in the West Bank was preparing to leave for northern Syria to undergo training before striking at Israeli and U.S. targets.
The Israeli-Syrian border [photo: IDF]
But the real nightmare scenario from Israel's point of view would be if the jihadis managed to take control of all or part of Syria's border with Israel, from where they could begin to carry out operations against Israelis.
Assad has ceded control of most of the border area of southern Syria facing the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. The border has been largely quiet for nearly 40 years.
Assad's main problem in fighting his war is a lack of manpower. He prefers, therefore, only to hold those areas which are absolutely necessary, ceding less vital stretches of territory.
ISIS has not yet reached southern Syria. Jabhat al Nusra is there, however, controlling an area of Deraa province. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has appointed al Nusra as his chief fighting force in Syria. According to an Israeli defense expert, al-Zawahri's jihadist ideology seeks to first launch attacks against Israel and then move onto the U.S. In sharp contrast, Osama Bin Laden's first target was the U.S.
Israel is not waiting for the jihadis to begin attacking it. Rather, according to recent reports, the Jewish state has established channels of communication with currently dominant non-jihadi rebel elements in the south.
The care afforded wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals has been widely reported.
This assistance appears to form only part of a wider project, in which Israel is quietly establishing lines of communication with non-Al-Qaeda rebels along the border, with the intention that they should form a de facto barrier to any attempt by the jihadis to create a presence there for the purpose of attacking Israel.
It is obviously in the interests of non-Al-Qaeda rebels to prevent this, since the last thing they need is for the jihadis to begin their own private war against the Jews behind their backs — with all the potential for inevitable Israeli retaliation that this would bring.
The links and communication with rebel elements in the south are unlikely to lead to a broader Israeli involvement there.
Memories of the Lebanese quagmire, and the awareness that any open Israeli embrace of this or that group of rebels would serve to instantly discredit them are likely to keep the Israeli footprint in southern Syria exceedingly light.
But what can be said with confidence is that Israel is quietly and carefully establishing and managing the relationships necessary to keep a close eye on developments, and to create a secure buffer zone against the jihadi threat.