Israel’s Unlikely Alliance

Is Israel helping al-Qaeda in Syria?

Members of Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, in October 2013. AFP

Considering the history of anti-Israel rhetoric that has emanated from al-Qaeda leaders over the years, it is no surprise to find skepticism expressed over the idea that Israel is now in an active alliance with one affiliate of al-Qaeda. Some critics have dismissed this analysis as a “conspiracy theory.”

There is no doubt that an Israeli–al-Qaeda alliance seems unlikely on the surface (although I have written elsewhere laying out the reasons to believe it nevertheless is happening).

In a 2002 “letter to America,” the justification “You attacked us in Palestine” appears at the top of a list of reasons Osama bin Laden gave for why they were “fighting and opposing you.” He alleged that “the American people have . . . affirmed their support for the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.”

This line of argument has long been part of al-Qaeda’s rhetoric. But in fact, the record shows extremely little in the way of violent attacks on Israel by this extremist sectarian movement. Its main targets have largely been US and other Western civilian and military targets on one hand, and Muslim civilian targets on the other (especially, in the last decade, sectarian attacks against Shia Muslims in Iraq).

Why would Israel and other western powers align themselves with such a movement, even on a limited, tactical basis? Surely any such support would eventually lead to “blowback” in those countries?

The latter point may be accurate, but based on the available evidence, it seems that Israeli planners consider it an acceptable risk — as do their US and European counterparts.

It is true that there are conflicting opinions in Israel about how to respond to the Syrian civil war, including which of the various sides and factions to support. This has been a developing debate within Israeli military, intelligence, and political circles.

In May 2013, an anonymous senior intelligence official reportedly told the London Times that Israel would grudgingly rather see Assad maintain power than see the rebels win: “Better the devil we know than the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos.” The Times said that Israeli intelligence thinking was that “an intact, but weakened, Assad regime would be preferable for the country and the whole troubled region.”

Seven months later, former Israeli military Chief of Staff Dan Halutz publicly stated that “the regime in Syria kills its citizens every day, but we must acknowledge that the opposition in Syria is composed of Muslim extremists like al-Qaeda.” The Times of Israel summarized the government position thusly: “Officials and analysts have gone back and forth since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011 as to whether Israel prefers that Assad stay in power or that the rebels topple his reg.”

This latter point seems true. Western governments at first seemed convinced that their semi-covert intervention in favor of the rebels would inevitably result in the fall of the Assad government. As former Mossad chief Efraim Halevi wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2013, “like most other countries, Israel believes that it is only a matter of time until the Syrian leader is forced from power.”

When it became clear that was not going to happen any time soon, they began to shift policy. The persistence of Iranian and Russian military support for the Syrian government seems to have surprised the rebels’ Western, Gulf, Turkish, and Israeli supporters. Since then, other Israeli officials, and former officials, have stated in far clearer terms that they would prefer Assad to be defeated, or at least significantly weakened.

More recent reports on Israeli thinking, combined with credible reporting from the ground in Syria, suggest that the elite consensus has swung towards conditional coordination with the Nusra Front — al-Qaeda in Syria.

The Nusra Front has controlled a key crossing point on the Golan Heights since August 2014, and the Israelis have been providing logistical support (and possibly arms) over the ceasefire line during that time. What appears to be the first explicit confirmation in the Israeli press of this came last month, when Israel Today reported the army had treated in its field hospital “a member of the Al-Nusra Front.” Crucially, these fighters are sent back to fight in Syria after being cared for — something that would never happen with captured Hamas or Hezbollah fighters.

Why are they doing this? Has Israeli suddenly converted to Wahhabism? Have they suddenly developed an affinity for the theories of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri? Do they seriously consider credible the promises last week from Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani not to use Syria as a base from which to attack the West?

Of course not. Indeed, it is precisely in Israel’s self-interest for civil war in Syria to continue for as long as possible.

Divide and rule is the classic imperial strategy, one that the British and French empires ruthlessly pursued in the region for decades, and America has continued as the current imperial hegemon (particularly during its direct occupation of Iraq). And despite occasional important differences with the United States, Israel is, in many respects, the spear tip of imperial interests in the region.

Israel’s position has evolved on this, and a strengthening of the alliance between Hezbollah (the Lebanese resistance movement) with the Assad regime is a major factor in this evolution.

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, stated in an interview almost a year ago that Israel wants to “let the Sunni evil prevail” over the greater “evil” of Iran and its regional proxies. Speaking in the context of a massacre of Iraqi soldiers, he seemed to argue that Israel should allow the “Islamic State” to win. His justification for this policy was that Iran has greater weaponry. Oren held a similar position as long ago as September 2013.

Oren isn’t alone among the Israeli elite. Gilad Sharon — the son of the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who once called for Israel to “flatten all of Gaza” — stated last month that Israel may actually prefer the “Islamic State” terror group (whose origins lie with the al-Qaeda in Iraq group) to Assad and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies.

He wrote:

For as long as the northern border remained quiet, it was in Israel’s interests somewhat to see Syrian President Bashar Assad remain in power . . . But now that the Golan Heights border is starting to become a terror border . . . the fall of Assad’s regime would bring Islamic State to our borders — and that’s a problem. But it would also be a fatal blow for Hezbollah . . . Things aren’t quiet now, and thus Assad’s guarantee should expire . . . So who needs Assad? This is not a call for direct intervention in the civil war in Syria, but it’s good to know what’s good for Israel.

This is consistent with what the consensus goal of Israeli policy in the Syrian civil war now seems to be: to let “both [sides] bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here,” as Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat, put it in September 2013.

At the beginning of last month, Alex Fishman, a veteran Israeli security correspondent confirmed that “let them bleed” was now “the official policy Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has dictated to the security establishment in light of the events in Syria.”

Israel may not want an outright al-Qaeda victory, but for the moment, they see support for al-Qaeda in Syria as the best way to prolong the civil war there. After all, if Hezbollah is busy fighting al-Qaeda (as it is in the Qalamoun mountains bordering Lebanon right now), the extent to which it can combat Israeli occupation forces will be limited. So the thinking seems to be.

Or, more crudely expressed: if Arabs are busy fighting Arabs, they will not be fighting Israel.