The automatic gunfire aimed at Ein Zivan Kibbutz on the Golan from the Syrian Quneitra region Wednesday, April 29, marked the debut of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Israel’s northern border – and its arrival in southern Syria
Israeli officials are not expected to confirm the proximity of ISIS to Israel’s borders. Government policy is not to spread fear and alarm among the half million civilians living in the serene, rustic and lushly green northern part of the country, beloved of trippers – but also close to multiple cross-border threats.
DEBKA Weekly’s counter-terror sources doubt that this calm will last long. ISIS is likely to follow up its first harmless gunshots with deadly assaults, coupled with attempts to breach the 92-km long Israeli security fence along its Syrian frontier.
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The Islamists may also use their store of missiles – including US-made arms taken booty in Iraq – against the Galilee towns of Kiryat Shemona, Safed, Rosh Pinah or Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is Israel’s largest natural source of fresh water.
If ISIS launches this type of offensive, the authorities will have to come clean about the new enemy sitting on the northern border.
Joint US-Israeli-Jordanian South Syrian strategy in tatters
This admission would have disastrous ramifications: The success of ISIS forces in pushing from eastern to southern Syria up to a point opposite Israel marks the breakdown of the joint strategy pursued for two years by the US, Israel and Jordan in southern Syria. It means that the Islamists have stolen a march on three intelligence agencies in the field by exercising superior intelligence and guileful tactics.
In those two years, Israel covertly supported Syrian rebel forces fighting in southern Syria (including the Free Syrian Army–FSA and the Al Nusra Front) with weapons, training for their commanders, intelligence and care for their wounded fighters in Israeli hospitals.
By this policy, Israel hoped to achieve two goals:
1. To create a security buffer region in southern Syria that would distance Syria army, Iranian Revolutionary Guards units and Hizballah terrorists from Israeli and Jordanian borders.
2. To keep ISIS at bay from those borders.
Israel acted in close conjunction with the United States and Jordan as a participant in the US-Jordan specialized Command and Control Headquarters established in 2013 north of Amman.
ISIS exploits strife in the south for a push to Quneitra
US CIA and special operations instructors trained Syrian opposition fighters in Jordan and sent them back to Syria to fight in the various battle arenas, but mostly in the south.
Jordanian special operations units were active in this part of Syria – and still are. Jordan and Israel have divided up the sectors between them, with American officers confirming operations and coordinating between their units and intelligence arms.
The Americans were keen on this operation: The cordon sanitaire Israel and Jordan were carving out in southern Syria was to be the jumping-off point for Syrian opposition forces to reach the outskirts of Damascus. There, the pro-US rebels would pose a threat to Assad’s regime, or at least be near enough to the capital to influence decision-making by the Syrian government and Its Iranian and Russian allies.
Two years later, none of these objectives has been achieved.
Notwithstanding rebel attacks and Israeli bombardments, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hizballah and the Syrian army had still by mid-April not been evicted from the designated area. And ISIS jihadists took advantage of the tussles there to move fighting strength right up to the vicinity of the Syrian Golan town of Quneitra, fetching up opposite the Israel border fence.
ISIS sows clandestine cells, recruits Syrian Jihad Army militia
How did ISIS get this far?
In recent weeks, DEBKA Weekly reports, ISIS has sown clandestine cells gathered from locally-recruited jjhadis in different parts of the South. They were on standby for orders from their regional command center in Deir e-Zour to come out and strike. Meanwhile a Syrian opposition group operating openly as the Jihad Army pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Tuesday morning, April 28, the two Islamic State arms joined forces.
The Jihad Army set up roadblocks and checkpoints in three villages around Quneitra – Qahtaniya, Hamidiya and Adnaniya, a stone’s throw from the Israel’s Golan border fence. Soon after, Syrian opposition fighters of the FSA and Nusra, from Nawa in the Daraa Province, drove through towards Hamidiya.
Jihad Army members stopped their car and hidden ISIS cell members jumped out and caught the convoy in a savage ambush.
Six men were killed, including Capt, Samer Suwadani a brigade commander, and Abu Saher, chief of the first corps – all members of the Nawa-based opposition militias backed by Israel and Jordan. Another four men were injured and fled the scene, eluding Jihad Army pursuit. The ISIS offshoot captured the FSA vehicles with their loads of weapons and ammunition.
Syrian opposition groups unite to fight ISIS after six fighters killed
The Jihad Army set up base in Qahtaniya and established military checkpoints in the vicinity.
This joint operation established a pattern for the two ISIS branches to continue working in tandem.
Together, they number no more than an estimated 1,000 jihadis – a small group made doubly dangerous by its strong ideological focus.
This incident, together with the automatic gunfire on an Israeli kibbutz on the Golan, was the first overt ISIS operation in southern Syria, after smashing its way through the eastern and northern regions.
The rebel headquarters in Daraa responded with an appeal for all opposition militias of the South to unite to eradicate the Jihad Army closing in on Quneitra with “an iron fist” and deliver its leaders up for trial as traitors.
The Jihad Army is accused of killing and capturing FSA fighters, whom it brands as “traitors, apostates and enemies of God.” It was denounced as “an ISIS sleeper cell” which had betrayed and obstructed opposition military action to overthrow the Assad regime.