So much for Obama’s lie that Al-Qaeda has been decimated.
Until recently, Israel’s Syrian and Egyptian fronts had been largely quiet since the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Because of the Arab Spring uprisings, however, al-Qaeda-affiliated militias have now emerged on both fronts, in addition to their presence in Lebanon and nascent involvement with Palestinian factions. Never before has Israel faced a situation in which its border towns were in such easy range of al-Qaeda militias. Israel has always been at the core of the organization’s ideology, but not an immediate target or main focus of al-Qaeda attacks.
The question of how to handle these emerging threats has spurred a fierce but quiet debate within the Israeli defense establishment and at the highest political levels. So far, Israel has decided to go with defensive preparations. Two new territorial military divisions have been created on the Sinai and Syrian fronts; fences have been constructed along the Egyptian front; troop deployments have been increased; and new intelligence equipment and resources have been allocated for Sinai and the Golan Heights.
In Syria, Israelis may prefer the devil they do not know (the rebels) to the devil they do know (Bashar al-Assad), but they may end up with both. The portion of the country lying south of Damascus is strategic and may be the key to the war’s outcome. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a major jihadist group, has not yet penetrated the south, but the officially recognized Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, is already on Israel’s front line. There, JN is mainly a local organization with local characteristics. Unlike in other areas of Syria, many southern militias are headed by young leaders who accept the political authority of their elders. Israel, Jordan, and these local militias have a shared interest in preventing a full jihadist takeover or allowing the Syrian army to recapture this territory.
Against this backdrop, over 800 wounded and sick Syrians have been treated in Israel during the war, including Col. Abdullah al-Bashir, the new commander of the Free Syrian Army. One would not be incorrect in assuming that Israel has a system of coordination and cooperation with at least some rebel militias. Israel is extending significant amounts of humanitarian aid and perhaps other types of aid, but there is a quiet debate on how far to go to ensure that local rebel militias control areas close to the border. Recently, for example, a leader of a local JN group declared that his fighters were now in range of the “Zionist crusader.”