Syria civil war: Assad regime accuses Israel of being ‘al-Qaeda’s air force’ as conflict edges closer to shared border

With war raging across Israel’s northern border, it cannot help but take an interest. But, as Kim Sengupta finds speaking to injured rebels at the Ziv Medical Centre, the situation is confusing...

Kim Sengupta
The Golan Heights
Thursday 21 January 2016 21:54
Israeli soldiers perform exercises in the Golan Heights. Stray rockets have occasionally – and apparently accidentally – struck across the border since the Syrian war began
Israeli soldiers perform exercises in the Golan Heights. Stray rockets have occasionally – and apparently accidentally – struck across the border since the Syrian war began

“Putin is the big Satan, Assad is the little Satan, Israel is now a friend, they help us”, declared Ala, lying on his hospital bed, one leg blown away, the other pinned and swathed in bandages. He had been manning an anti-aircraft gun when Russian warplanes struck, a missile killing three fellow fighters near him.

The 22-year-old Syrian rebel, a former history student at Damascus University, had been knocked unconscious by the blast. He woke up five days later at the Ziv Medical Centre, in Safed, across the Israeli border. “This one was cut off by a nurse who came to my home,” said Ala, patting the stump.

“We don’t have many doctors in Deraa. I would have lost my other leg if I had not been brought here. We were taught to think everything was bad about Israel, but they have been good to me and many other revolutionaries.”

It was not possible to gauge the sincerity of Ala’s change of views about the Jewish state since he was injured some six weeks ago. Some Syrian fighters had threatened, “we will return and slaughter you”, as they were being sent back to Syria after treatment. Nursing staff have, at times, been harassed and insulted.

But Israel cannot detach itself from the civil war taking place across its northern frontier. The most visible manifestations of this are the more than 2,000 injured Syrians being treated in its northern hospitals. There are families, babies and the elderly, but the majority of the patients are men of fighting age, and their numbers are growing.

The Independent had come across a few of them on a visit to Ziv Centre last year. They were extremely cautious about what they said.

This week, however, Ala was ready to proclaim his fighting credentials with the rebel group Mujahedin Horan, which is loosely affiliated to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). He insisted that he was against the extremists among the rebels. “Daesh [Isis] is bad. Jabhat al-Nusra is bad,” he cried. But al-Nusra fighters had also been treated at the hospital in the past, and there have even have been fights in the wards between factions. Israeli soldiers keep guard.

The strife across the Israeli border is vicious and confusing, the outcome uncertain. It is a four-cornered struggle between the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, the Isis-linked Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk, the moderate FSA affiliates like Mujahedin Horan, and regime forces, which are backed by the Lebanese Shia militia, Hezbollah, and units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

A wounded Syrian being treated in Zefat, Israel

The most fierce of the recent clashes have been between Jabhat al-Nusra and Shuhada, with a Shuhada commander, Mousab Ali Qarfan, killed last year. In the shifting sands of Syrian rebel alliances, Shuhada was considered at the time to be a moderate group; it may have even received Western aid. Jabhat al-Nusra, however, claimed that Qarfan was a secret Isis agent with the mission of spreading the “caliphate” to the Golan Heights.

Israel’s leadership has warned about the looming threat, but seems uncertain about who is the most potent enemy, Sunni Isis or Shia Hezbollah. Speaking at a security conference in Tel Aviv, President Reuven Rivlin declared that the enemy is no longer just at the gate, but inside it, and it is Isis.

“The Islamic State is already here, that is no longer a secret,” he said. “I am not speaking about territories bordering Israel, but within the State itself. Research studies, arrests, testimonies, overt and covert analysis all clearly indicate that there is increasing support for the Islamic State among Israeli Arabs, while some are actually joining Isis”, he added.

The head of the Israeli military, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, said that the Russian military intervention in Syria had reversed the advance of Isis, forcing it towards the border with Israel and Jordan. “The success against Isis raises the probability that we will see them turn their guns against us and against the Jordanians. In their strategy, there is logic in connecting Israel with Jordan,” he said.

But the General is very clear that Hezbollah remains the “number one enemy of the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces]”, using, he wanted to stress, 240 Shia villages in southern Lebanon to launch assaults with missiles.

“They are the capability Hezbollah has built for the day they receive the order to attack. They are seeking to make the projectiles more accurate and these have grown in the past decade from 10,000 to 100,000 rockets and missiles,” he said.

The perceived menace of Hezbollah was highlighted with the arrest this week of Juad Nasrallah, the son of the head of the movement, Hassan Nasrallah, for allegedly organising a suicide attack cell in Tulkaram in the West Bank.

“Hezbollah sent $5,000 from abroad to advance the terrorist plot,” according to the domestic security service, Shin Bet.

But Naftali Bennett, the leader of the nationalist Jewish Home Party, and Education Minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, wonders why Israelis should accept that Hezbollah was the enemy when they have been told “day and night” that Iran was the real enemy and Hezbollah and Hamas, in Gaza, were just their tools. Why was it that in every conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah, “Israeli blood was shed” while the “head of the octopus”, Iran, was left untouched, he asked.

The violence across the border in the north, meanwhile, continues, with missiles coming into Israel at times. “These missiles have come from the regime side, with their Iranian and Hezbollah contingents, not from the rebels,” said Sarit Zehavi, an intelligence corps major in the reserve force. “Some may have been by mistake, but others were deliberate.”

Israel, she insisted, was against both Sunni and Shia extremists. Western intervention in Iraq and Syria showed, she maintained, that the West “thinks Sunni terrorists are worse than Shia terrorists”.

“We don’t make that distinction,” she added.

But the Syrian regime accuses the Israelis of helping the rebels. Rami al-Hassan, a Syrian army commander, claimed: “The first instance of co-operation between the Israeli army and al-Nusra has taken place in Quneitra where al-Nusra took the border crossing, and Israel provided them with cover under pretext of ‘shooting back’, hindering the Syrian air force and bringing down one of our planes.”

President Bashar al-Assad declared in an interview: “How can you say al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force.”

There is acknowledgment in Israel that the longer the fighting continues, the closer it gets to the frontier, the more the chance of Israeli forces getting drawn into the war.

At the hospital, Ala, the fighter, and Ahmed, who described himself as a civil volunteer, said they would even accept President Assad staying on for a while in power if that led to a ceasefire.

“People are just tired of deaths, they just want it to end,” said Ahmed. “But there is no chance of peace, anyway it will be very difficult for people to live together in the future, we know the Alawites, Shias, Druze and Christians sided with the regime.”

Ala agreed: “This war will not end for a long time. So I have to start practising how to use the anti-aircraft gun with just one leg”, he said with a rueful smile.

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