Israel’s Syria Strike: Is it trying to Help al-Qaeda vs. Hizbullah & Iran?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

There are several questions around the Israeli helicopter gunship strike on Mazari` al-Amal in Syria’s Quneitra Province, which killed Hizbullah personnel and an Iranian general. First, what were the latter doing there? Second, why did Israel strike them?

The Israeli cover story, that Hizbullah was planning attacks inside Syria from Quneitra, does not make any sense to me. Hizbullah does not control the Syrian territory abutting Israel. Rather, the Golan and much of Quneitra province have fallen to the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) and a patchwork of other rebels, including some moderates. The Syrian army and its Lebanese and Iranian allies have been pushed northeast toward Damascus, and their counter-offensive this winter failed miserably. Hizbullah does control territory on the Lebanon-Israel border. So if the strike was out of fear of Hizbullah machinations against Israel, why hit them relatively deep in Syrian territory where they couldn’t do anything to Israel, rather than on the Lebanese border where they could?

Two explanations for the Israeli strike on Mazari` al-Amal occur to me:

1. It was merely opportunistic. The Israeli government has a vendetta with the Mughniya family, which Israeli forces pushed out of their farms in what is now northern Israel in 1948 (there were 7 Shiite villages that were erased in northern Israel). Imad Mughniya was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus, likely by Israeli intelligence, after a career as a sanguinary guerrilla who fought the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon 1982-2000. His son Jihad had recently emerged as a capable Hizbullah commander and was among those killed on Sunday. Hizbullah is notoriously penetrated by moles for Israel, and if one of them specified Mughniya’s location and that of an Iranian general, the Israelis may have felt that the opportunity was too good to pass up.

2. The Israelis are deliberately trying to throw the war to al-Qaeda by weakening Syrian defenses southwest of Damascus and helping the radical Support Front take territory nearer Damascus. Why they would want to do this is not clear (you’d think they’d be upset to have al-Qaeda as their direct neighbor in Golan, as they do now. They are always complaining about having Hamas-controlled Gaza as a neighbor but they aren’t fazed by having al-Qaeda as one?)

So personally I think the explanation that they just had an opportunity to take out people they saw as dangerous to them or to their goals in the long term is the more likely one. But they have at least to be all right with the likely outcome that al-Qaeda has been strengthened on their borders.

The Christian-owned Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar asks the essential question, of what in the world Hizbullah commanders and a general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were up to in Quneitra Province (southwest of Damascus) near the Syrian part of the Golan Heights (part of Golan has been occupied by Israel since 1967).

The answer is that they were trying to roll back advances by al-Qaeda/Support Front and its radical and moderate de facto allies, southwest of the capital and near the border with Israel. As a result, an-Nahar reports, the rebel forces said they welcomed any strike on Hizbullah, from no matter where it originated (i.e. even if it was from their common enemy, Israel). A leader of the moderate Brigades of the Sword of Syria said the foreign Lebanese Hizbullah had come into Syria to help the al-Assad regime massacre the Syrian people.

A Syria Press bureau reporter and the Syrian activist Maher al-Hamdan told An-Nahar that Mazari` al-Amal, where the Lebanese and Iranians were located, is between the districts of al-Mashati and Hadar to the north, Tel al-Ahmar and `Ain al-Nuriya to the south, rebel-held Taranja to the west, and Nab` al-Fawwar and `Ain al-Nuriya to the east. It is a fertile agricultural region, inhabited by only about 100 persons. (Quneitra is a province southwest of the capital of Damascus, the southern 80% of which has fallen to al-Qaeda and the northeastern 20% of which is still in regime hands).

The area has a Syrian government military barricade belonging to the 220th unit of military security. Al-Hamdan said that the weapons there are machine guns and heavy artillery, and the Israeli strike targeted these Syrian forces, which are the first line of defense for the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The Israeli raid, then, was not limited to hitting Hizbullah, since this area is considered a target rich environment for Israel. Al-Hamdan remarked that the area had military equipment of Russian provenance to spot drones, as well as Russian advisers, a Hizbullah military unit, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards tasked with protecting the Russian advisers.

In the past 6 months, the regime had lost 80% of Quneitra province as well as the entirety of the Syrian-held portion of the Golan Heights, to al-Qaeda/Support Front and its allies. And then last October rebels took al-Hara and its strategic hilltop, Tel al-Hara. At the same time, the rebels captured modern Russian military equipment there. The al-Assad government then sent troops into the region in a counter-offensive.

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The Damascus regime rushed to build military posts in Tel al-Sha`ar and Tellat Ahmar, as well as forward operating bases in Mazari` al-Amal and nearby places. Some 24 Syrian garrisons were reinforced in this way after the fall of Tel al-Hara, and the regime made an attempt to recover its lost territory in the area, supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbullah.

The counter-offensive failed, so the regime adopted a defensive posture in the area to protect the 20% of Quneitra province that had not fallen. Hizbullah commander Jihad Mughniya was in charge of this defensive effort.

An-Nahar’s sources allege that in addition to the 5 Hizbullah personnel and the one Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander killed, One Russian expert was lightly wounded, and 13 Hizbullah and IRGC personnel were wounded.

There had been no battles in Quneitra for about 20 days between the regime and al-Qaeda and other rebel forces, after the al-Assad loyalists had failed to take the town of al-Baath. The al-Assad forces had occasionally shelled al-Qaeda positions.

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Related video:

Reuters: “Thousands attend funeral for Hezbollah figure killed in air strike”

16 Responses

  1. Israel will always help the weaker enemy against the stronger enemy.

  2. Thanks for this analysis of a confusing situation. I wonder what our leaders in DC think about this? We seem to be involved, but to what end? That isn’t clear at all.

  3. Israeli election year internal politics might be another reason, along with opportunity.

    And it is worth keeping in mind, Netanyahu is a not totally rational man, along with some of his friends.

  4. There is a third explanation for the strike — Bibi thinks heightened tension, if not retaliation, will increase the likelihood he’ll get elected again.

  5. My own point of view is that the strike was to provoke Hizbullah (or Iran?) to retaliate. When that happens, then Israel will be engaged in hostilities accordingly. Coming up is the election in March, whereby Netanyahu as hawk-in-chief will keep his post.
    The attack is quite simply a win-win for Bibi.

  6. The view I take of this is that yes it was an opportunistic assassination and nobody will really protest, but the broader strategy is to maintain a general stalemate with enough fighting to keep Israel out of direct fire.
    Its a foolish short term plan, utilized many times by external powers – always with disastrous long term repercussions.
    What does Israel think will happen when the fighting finally ends? Heavily armed decentralized groups of fighters will inevitably turn their attention to Israel.

  7. both reasons are likely…it was a shot worth taking,..although they didnt know exactly who were in the cars ….also Israel would rather have al Qaeda there for propaganda reasons,as America really hates al Qaeda

  8. I think there are other possibilities that have to be mentioned. One is, as Jay L pointed out, it’s election time in Israel and we all know how Israeli politicians love to look tough by starting limited wars and bombing civilians. Netanyahu’s position in the elections has been getting more and more shaky. That’s why the Paris trip despite the French asking him not to go, and that’s why this now. He is counting on the notion that most voters don’t like to change horses during a war.

    The other possibility is the nuclear talks. Israel is absolutely terrified of any kind of lessening of tensions between the U.S. and Iran. They know well an operation like this will be begging Iranians and Hezbollah to retaliate, and Israel hopes to use that retaliation to boost efforts to undermine the nuclear talks.

  9. “The Israelis are deliberately trying to throw the war to al-Qaeda……..”

    There has been speculation of this sort going on for awhile; please consider:

    (A) Al-Nusra Front fighters are getting medical treatment in Israeli hospitals when injured – where they can be debriefed by Israelis for intelligence purposes about events within Syria;

    (B) Al-Nusra Front is fighting not only the Assad regime and Hezbollah – but also ISIS;

    (C) should Al-Nusra Front prevail in Syria against the Baathist government, the arms pipeline from Iran into Lebanon to Hezbollah would be interrupted;

    (D) Al-Nusra Front has no warplanes, tanks, helicopters or emerging nuclear capability to potentially menace Israel with;

    (E) Al-Nusra Front has made no significant military moves against Israeli interests;

    (F) the Syrian National Coalition had previously attempted to get the odious U.S. State Department terror organization rescinded as to the Nusra Front.

    The Israeli government – at least for now – appears to view the Al-Nusra (Succor) Front as the lesser of two evils in Syria.

    • Originally Israel helped Islamic Iran and Hezbollah as the lesser of two evils against PLO and indeed it was a success. PLO is practically out and the Islamization of the region is a justification for Israel to hold on to the whole thing.

  10. Israel feels besieged in the court of public opinion (other than in the U.S.), so it’s a full court press to deflect attention from its crimes and internal problems and to ensure their alliances with the U.S. and its cronies in Europe remain strong. They believe everyone will forget the crimes in Gaza. Now Bibi’s going to Congress to ratchet up the pressure over here. They’re also hoping there’s enough chaos in their vicinity so they have that ‘national security’ excuse to ignore any investigations. Also the election in Israel … There’s lots of reasons to enter the fray in Syria. After all, Israel is America-lite!

  11. At some point could someone address exactly what al-Qaeda has done to support the Palestinian cause in Gaza…..training operatives, financial assistance, planning and coordinating, etc? Could it be there is a tacit agreement between Israel and al-Qaeda that in return for not becoming an active ally of the Palestinians al-Qaeda can count on Israel to turn a blind eye toward its interests in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere? Having al-Qaeda available to scare the Americans into accepting Israeli definitions of the situation in Palestine is a great asset for Netanyahu.

  12. The main Israeli motivation seems to be staging a red herring to cover the now ongoing Israeli mobilization.

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