Israeli diplomats have filed a quiet demarche with Washington over the participation of US special forces in a joint operation with the Syrian, Hizballah and Lebanese armies to clear the Lebanese-Syrian border region of Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm the rebel Nusra Front, which is fighting with ISIS elements. This is reported by debkafile. The operation against the rebel group fighting under the command of Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani, has been divided into three parts.
The third part soon to be launched is designed to take this “coalition” up to the Israeli border.
The first part consisted of a Hizballah assault on Nusra forces holding the Arsal region on both sides of the border at its northern tip. Hizballah was claimed to have fought the enemy singlehanded. But like all the statements from Washington and Moscow about events in Syria, this one too needed a closer look at the “facts.” It so transpired that Hizballah was backed up by Syrian artillery, while the Lebanese army had the role of cutting off the rebels’ escape routes from the battle ground.
The rebel fighters seeing they were hemmed in on all sides surrendered and agreed to pull out. Over the weekend, therefore, 7,000 rebel fighters, most of them belonging to Nusra and their families, were evacuated from the border region to the northern Syrian province of Idlib on the Turkish border.
It also turned out that the trilateral Arsal operation had a US dimension. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited Washington last week and held talks with President Donald Trump at the White House. Straight after that meeting, the US President had harsh words for Hizballah, which he called a threat to world peace. But in his closed-doors interview with Hariri, Trump was persuaded that the Lebanese army could not defend its borders without help and had no option but to work with Hizballah and the Syrian army.
Hariri also convinced the US president to declare the Nusra Front and all its branches a terrorist organization to be fought in the same way as the Islamic State.
At that point, Israel put forward no argument, although this first instance of a joint operation between Bashar Assad’s forces, the Iranian-backed Hizballah and the Lebanese army, was red-flagged in Jerusalem as a green card for Hizballah’s extended reach beyond the Lebanese border.
Neither did Israel, whose prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is beset with his own troubles at home, demur when the Americans declared the Nusra network the target of America’s war on terror, even though this distanced the Trump administration from Jerusalem’s position.
Israel contends that the rebel groups holding the Syrian border districts opposite the Golan are indigenous defenders of their villages in the Quneitra and Hermon regions. While a small number may also have ties to Nusra, they are insignificant. This acceptance has gained Israel a narrow security strip, which acts as a buffer against the incursion of the hostile Syrian army, Hizballah and Iranian forces up to its northern border.
Washington turned a blind eye to Israeli tolerance of the Nusra presence under its auspices – until Hariri’s intervention turned the White House around. The outcome of this turnaround was soon apparent.
On Thursday, Aug. 3, the Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon announced: “Our special forces are providing training and support to the Lebanese Armed Forces.” To clarify what he meant by “support,” he added: “That not only concentrates on operation type missions, but also tactical and strategic type missions. We also have a presence with Lebanese Special Forces in all aspects of training and special operations.”
The Pentagon spokesman would hardly have made this momentous disclosure without high-level authority – at least by Defense Secretary James Mattis, if not the president in person.
His words were quickly translated into action.
Sunday, Aug. 6, the second part of the joint Syrian, Hizballah, Lebanese operation was underway against Nusra -ISIS forces holding positions in the Lebanese towns of Ras Baalbek and al-Fakiya in the northern Beqaa Valley. This time, Lebanese Special Forces went into active combat, along with US Special Forces – a new development of the highest strategic impact – not just for Israel, but in the wider Middle East context. US special forces troops are for the first time taking part in a joint military operation with Hizballah and the Lebanese government.
It may be argued that the US military is working directly only with the Lebanese government army. However, the operational plans must have been drawn up together with the Syrian high command in Damascus and Hizballah’s chiefs in Beirut – and, given the latter’s role as Tehran’s proxy, Iranian officers were no doubt part of this round-able planning conference.
Unfolding on the Syrian-Lebanese border region, therefore, is much more than a cleansing operation against an Al Qaeda affiliate; It is the start of a new military alignment, which is ready fight in the third part of the operation, which will focus on the Syrian-Jordanian and Syrian-Israeli borders.
This combination is the outcome of the US-Russian deal to cooperated in Syria, which debkafile uncovered from the first. Both powers are determined to impose their agreed ceasefire zones right up to the Golan border, whatever it takes – whether Israel likes it or not.