The cross-border incident on the Golan Wednesday, Aug. 27, in which an Israeli officer was injured by stray fire from the fighting between Syrian army and rebel forces near Quneitra, put this battle zone on the front pages. However, debkafile’s military sources report that this incident, fought by only 300 combatants on each side backed by 10 tanks, had no real military importance for the Syrian conflict at large. The Syrian army, helped by Iran and Hizballah, is winning and the rebel side is crumbling.
The battle for Qoneitra, fought 200 meters from the Israeli border, is much more important as a touchstone in quite a different setting, that concerns not only Israel but the complicated US posture against the many-headed Al Qaeda peril in the Middle East.
The US, Jordan and Israel are quietly backing the mixed bag of some 30 Syrian rebel factions which Tuesday, Aug. 26, seized control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing, the only transit point between Israeli and Syrian Golan. However – here comes the rub - Al Qaeda elements have permeated all those factions.
The crossing is foirmally under the control of UNDOF, an international peacekeeping force, which too is falling apart as contingents are recalled by their governments.
Damascus hit back at the rebels Thursday, Aug. 28, by sending the Syrian air force to destroy the new rebel positions. This was a flagrant contravention of Israel-Syrian armistice agreements. The Israeli air force might have been justified in scrambling to combat the Syrian air incursion, but was not ordered to do so.
This appeared to contradict a fact which Israel has kept very dark: The 30 or so Syrian rebel offensive to wrest Quneitra would have stood no chance without Israel’s aid - not just in medical care for their injured, but also in limited supplies of arms, intelligence and food. Israel acted as a member, along with the US and Jordan, of a support system for rebel groups fighting in southern Syria. Their efforts are coordinated through a war-room which the Pentagon established last year near Amman. The US, Jordanian and Israeli officers manning the facility determine in consultation which rebel factions are provided with reinforcements from the special training camps run for Syrian rebels in Jordan, and which will receive arms.
All three governments understand perfectly that, notwithstanding all their precautions, some of their military assistance is bound to percolate to Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is fighting in rebel ranks. Neither Washington or Jerusalem or Amman would be comfortable in admitting they are arming Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in southern Syria.
And not only Nusra: It turned out in this week’s incident that some of the rebel fighters come from the terrorist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a coalition of Al Qaeda contingents based in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Another piece of this dissonant jigsaw is Al Maqdis’ close alignment for its violent operations with the Palestinian Hamas ruling Gaza, with which Israel has just been locked in a deadly 50-day war.
Wednesday night, at his news conference to sum up that war, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu included in his list of Israel’s diplomatic successes, the winning over of world opinion to the perception that Hamas and Al Qaeda belong to the same family of terrorists and share the same fundamentalist ideology, which must be fought.
As he spoke, Al Qaeda fighters, intermingled with Syrian rebel factions, fetched up just yards from Israel’s northern border fence.
debkafile’s military sources say that Washington, Amman and Jerusalem can expect to keep the embarrassing fact fairly quiet only until the first black Al Qaeda flag is raised over a rebel position at the Quneitra crossing or a captured Syrian post opposite the line of Israeli positions on the Golan. Israel will then face a new dilemma on this sensitive front, which will take some explaining.