In a special briefing to foreign correspondents Friday, Jan. 24, a high-ranking Israeli intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, reported that more than 30,000 al-Qaeda-linked fighters are active in Syria, a huge increase over the 2,000 jihadis present there two years ago. With jihadis in control of Syrian territory on Israel's northern borders, the high-ranking officer said “many discussions are taking place behind closed doors about the possibility of rethinking its strategy” of neutrality in the Syrian civil war.
The inference drawn from this disclosure is that, for the first time in Syria’s three-year civil conflict, Israel is ready to embark on cross-border military action to stem this direct threat.
In his briefing, the Israeli officer stressed that the Islamic rebel groups massing in Syria have openly threatened to turn their sights on Israel after toppling Assad.
He went on to report that another 1,200 Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters have taken up a presence in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Furthermore, coordination has deepened among Al Qaeda’s branches in Syria and Egyptian Sinai, where its local Salafist supporters have formed a jihadist coalition calling itself Ansar Beit al Maqdis (the Jerusalem Front).
This front carried out four terrorist attacks in Cairo Friday, killing at least 6 people and injuring more than 60. It exhibited for the first time a capacity for coordinated terrorist attacks inside the Egyptian capital.
Last week, Sinai Salafists fired two Grad missiles at the Israeli town of Eilat, after a rash of attacks on Israeli forces and a numerous lethal assaults on Egyptian military targets in Sinai.
The IDF has never before released figures on the scale of Al Qaeda’s deployment in Syria, or revealed its concentration on the Israeli border. The policy overhaul the officer described offered the rationale for potential Israeli intervention in Syria in order to push the jihadist menace back from its northern towns and villages.
Israel targeted after Syria and Iraq
Thousands of foreign fighters from across the Muslim world, as well as Europe and North America, have flocked to Syria to bolster the al-Qaeda-linked groups operating in Syria. They have big plans to establish a big independent Islamic state at the heart of the Middle East. This is the conclusion of intelligence experts, according to debkafile’s counter-terror and military sources. This state is intended in the first instance to devour large swathes of Iraq and Syria, before the founders turn their sights on Israel and Jordan.
However, if their first goal of toppling the Assad regime is frustrated by the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah alliance, they are ready to reverse this order and go straight for Israel.
Four radical Islamist fighting groups are active in the Syrian civil war:
1. Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, operates under direct orders from the top, the Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zuwahiri.
Wednesday, Jan. 22, the Shin Beit reported foiling a plot he had hatched for a mixed team of jihadists to carry out three terrorist operations in Israel. Local Palestinians and al Qaeda terrorists coming in from Turkey or Syria and the Russian Caucasian republics were to blow up the US Embassy in Tel Aviv as well as the Convention Center and a bus route in Jerusalem.
This disclosure provided the background for the briefing the IDF offered foreign correspondents Friday.
2. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which has captured large areas of eastern Syria, including some of its oil fields, and seized strategic districts of western Iraq, including the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi.
3. Ahram al Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant). Though less known in the West, this organization has raised a force of 15,000 combatants from Al Qaeda and various radical Salafist movements. It heads the newly-formed Islamist Front of seven anti-Assad terrorist groups.
While this front has separated itself from Al Qaeda and is funded and armed by Saudi Arabia, it shares the same ideology and dedication to Israel’s destruction.
Ahram al Sham’s relations with al Qaeda have been the subject of speculation among US and Israeli intelligence specialists. The guessing was laid to rest in early January, when the group’s leader Abu Khalid al-Syria admitted for the first time that he is a member of al Qaeda.
4. Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam). This is the largest Syrian rebel force present in the Damascus area, and Riyadh’s favored group for assistance, judging from the fact that, in addition to arms and funds, Saudi intelligence has sent Pakistani military instructors to train its members.
Israel’s military options
Although the IDF officer did not go into Israel’s military plans for tackling the burgeoning Al Qaeda threat, debkafile’s military sources project some options.
a) Carving out secure buffer zones, permanent or temporary, on the Syrian side of the border. This would be contingent on the cooperation of local Syrian militias willing to rid their lands of Al Qaeda incursions.
b) Air and ground strikes against jihadist border concentrations.
c) Deep thrusts inside Syria and Iraq to block al Qaeda forces’ advances to threaten the Kingdom of Jordan.
d) Targeted assassinations of top al Qaeda commanders.
e) Thwarting jihadist drives to extend their conquests of strategic areas of Syria for use as springboards against Israel. One example is Jebel Druze, whose population has preserved neutrality and stayed out of the Syrian civil war.
Israel’s recourse to military action against the jihadist threat from Syria would require learning US military tactics for combating terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The IDF has no experience of this kind or scale of warfare. It would have to re-write its war doctrine and retrain substantial commando forces in preparation for long years of close-up combat against the jihadist enemy.
Israel would also need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of a military campaign against al Qaeda’s Syrian deployment, taking into consideration that resorting to a campaign against al Qaeda would ease the pressure on the Assad regime and its allies, Iran and Hizballah. That is a hard call to make.