Over the weekend, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian arm of al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, potentially signaling an increase in extremist activity near the heavily fortified Israeli border.
Last week, Nusra fighters captured the sole border crossing between Israel and Syria.
On Monday the Iraeli army said it had shot down a drone that had crossed into its airspace, launched from the Syrian side of the Golan by either regime or Hezbollah forces battling rebels there. It was not thought to have been aimed at Israel.
But with Nusra becoming increasingly emboldened in its activity near the border, potential for an increased Israeli response “really depends on what happens next,” says Itamar Rabinovich, president of the Israel Institute, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and its former chief negotiator with Syria.
“There have been isolated incidents in the past in the fighting between rebels and the Syrian army – sometimes shells and bullets ended up hitting the Golan or other Israeli-held territory. But if Jabhat al-Nusra is determined to try and ignite the border area, then of course it will have different repercussions than usual. Israel is not nervous, but it’s vigilant.”
Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, says he doesn’t “think it’s an isolated or unexpected incident. Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other smaller militias have been making progress in the Quneitra area for weeks now. This is just the latest significant success they’ve enjoyed there.”
Nusra’s taking of the border crossing has greater symbolic value than past victories in the area, he says, “because it brings Nusra within 200 meters of Israeli positions. But it’s not the end of their campaign – Quneitra is still a city under regime control, and other important southern towns are still in play.”
We asked Tommy Steiner, senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, to further explain Israel’s current position.
Syria Deeply: Is the kidnapping of the peacekeepers a game-changer for Israel?
Tommy Steiner: In Israel, when we see kidnapped peacekeepers and captured U.N. Jeeps flying al-Qaida flags, it’s disconcerting – to put it mildly. Over the past week we’ve seen Nusra forces move closer to the Israeli border, taking over the Quneitra border passing, which is the only one between Israel and Syria. And that’s creating concern.
We appreciate that at this point Israel is not the direct target of Jabhat al-Nusra, but that might change – they don’t like us any more than they like the Assad regime. But this has not happened out of the blue. Part of Nusra’s driving force is the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has established its foothold in the north and is pushing south towards territory held by rival extremist forces. One possibility here is that ISIS might be tempted to follow in Nusra’s footsteps to come closer to the Israeli border. And that’s the last thing we want to see across our border, and across the border with Jordan. But it’s a scenario that we now have to grapple with and start seriously considering.
Syria Deeply: Will this lead Israel to refortify the Golan border, to add more soldiers?
Steiner: The border was refortified a year ago. It was clear then that what’s happened now was only a matter of time – that we would see the arrival of al-Qaida forces closer to the border. So this didn’t take anyone on the Israeli side by surprise. Maintaining the Golan border used to be handed over to reservists from the Israeli military, who came to consider it lightweight military duty.
But today the border’s security is a far more serious business. There’s a lot of uncertainty and we’re taking security there far more seriously than ever before. There’s no immediate threat to Israel. We are upset that some of the fire does inadvertently cross over the Israeli border, and that some fire might go astray, like what happened a day or two ago. But there’s nothing much we can do about the situation at this point: the two options are whether it will be Jabhat al-Nusra or the regime backed up by Hezbollah near that border.
Syria Deeply: What is Israel’s reaction to U.S. strikes against ISIS in northern Iraq, and to Obama’s statement that he has “no strategy” to attack the group in Syria?
Steiner: Israel has no formal official position on what should or should not be done in Syria. From the Israeli government’s point of view, it does not have a dog in this fight. We’re not going to say what we think should be done in Syria or Iraq, because at this point neither arena poses an immediate threat to Israel’s security. If it becomes a direct security threat, then we’ll have to address it. If you look at Israeli officials’ perspective on the Obama administration’s Middle East policy over the past two years, it hasn’t gotten much admiration or appreciation – to put it mildly.