Is Israeli Support of Syrian Rebels a Sign of Conflict to Come?

With all of the anti-Assad sentiment and action coming from the West, and particularly the United States and their allies, including Israel, it may not come as much of a surprise to find out that members of associated military groups have admitted the State of Israel formally supported Syrian rebel groups.

Uncertainty surrounding the motives, backgrounds, and identities of Syrian rebel groups has led to some criticism of international support, specifically the act of supplying these groups with weaponry. The United States has had less-than-desirable results with arming and training rebel groups in the past, with Osama bin Laden serving as the prime example of how quickly and extremely a once-tenuous ally can turn mortal enemy. The arming of Libyan rebels drew similar rebukes to those of critics who oppose granting assistance to Syrian rebels, and the absolute chaos that has unfolded in Libya post-Gadhafi has granted a measure of “I told you so” to those naysayers.

In Syria, outrage towards President Assad seems justified. But the question remains: should he be ousted, can we reasonably expect a better alternative? And, isn’t it almost certain that, even if a more desirable leader were to eventually emerge, it would take years, if not decades of chaos, infighting, and foreign intervention to achieve that goal?

Fair questions, but many in the West have implicitly rejected them by providing arms to Syrian rebel groups. The case of Israel and its allies is unique, because the presence of Iran in the region is a persistent threat, and strategic gains in Syria by Iranian forces is certainly worth stymying. So, while theoretical arguments against arming Syrian rebels exist, one cannot help but understand the Israeli tact.

‘The military transfers, which ended in July of this year, included assault rifles, machine guns, mortar launchers and transport vehicles. Israeli security agencies delivered the weapons through three gates connecting the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria—the same crossings Israel used to deliver humanitarian aid to residents of southern Syria suffering from years of civil war.’ (Foreign Policy)

What is always interesting to consider with these reports is context and timing. While it appeared not too long ago that Assad would almost certainly remain in power and the conflict in Syria was winding down, recent developments have seemingly signaled that the opposite is true. Only two days ago, it was reported that Syria claimed to have “blocked” an Israeli attack.

‘The Syrian Defense Ministry said in a statement that "air defense systems are thwarting an Israeli aggression with aircraft that infiltrated at low altitudes from west Beirut and headed north, targeting some of our military positions in Tartous and Hama, dealing with hostile missiles, dropping some of them and forcing the attacking planes to flee."’ (Newsweek)

And only a few days ago, speculation was that the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib represents the rebels’ last stand.

‘Syria's north-western province of Idlib is the last major area under rebel control. Over the course of the fighting it has become home to huge numbers of internally displaced people.

Around three million are now concentrated in this largely rural region. A series of deals have allowed rebel fighters from other areas to move there too, as the Syrian government has consolidated its hold over large swathes of the country.

Now President Bashar al-Assad is turning his attention towards Idlib.’ (BBC)

Now, a report states that Israel has supported the very same rebels being painted as having their backs against the wall, and some may take this to mean that further support is coming. And, taking it a step further, that the conflict in Syria is far from over.

‘The assistance to these groups remained steady for some time, but it expanded significantly last year. Israel went from supporting hundreds of fighters to reaching groups comprising thousands of rebels. The increase in assistance coincided with a broader shift in Israel’s policies in Syria. After appeals to the U.S. administration and the Kremlin failed to secure a deal that would ensure that Iranian-backed militias would be kept away from southern Syria, Israel adopted a more aggressive policy.’ (FP)

However, this report may also just be a report. The accounts are reportedly the stuff of Syrian insiders, not Israelis. And, those accounts do take on a seemingly anti-Israeli bent, espousing a view that Israel did not follow through on certain promises, though this account seems an unfair reading of events.

“This is a lesson we will not forget about Israel. It does not care about … the people. It does not care about humanity. All it cares about it its own interests,” said Y., a fighter from one of the groups, Forsan al-Jolan. (FP)

Such a perception could be met two ways: with dismissal, or with a resilience by Israel to prove that they are not, in fact, a nation that leaves those it supports with perceptions of abandonment. If the latter is true, it’s not implausible to anticipate more conflict in Syria, as opposed to the dying down of rebel activity that has been speculated about.

What is concerning about this possibility for re-escalation is the involvement of so many world powers in the region. Russia, Iran, and Turkey are solidly on the side of the Assad regime. The United States, Israel, and most of the West has spoken out against the very same regime, with mixed messages about willingness to engage militarily to ensure regime change. It is an unusual concentration of foreign players for a conflict as seemingly inconsequential outside the Middle East as the Syrian Civil War is.

But, further escalation of the conflict could prove very consequential, considering the array of international actors. If neither side is willing to back down, what was once a single epicenter of conflict could grow rapidly, with catastrophic results.

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