Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Syrian truce fractures, Israel looks to capitalise

The Israeli intelligence community has changed its view on Syrian President Bashar al Assad and now believes Israel will benefit if al Assad is removed from office, Israeli Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi told U.S. officials during a secret meeting in New York two weeks ago, Haaretz reported May 16, citing an unnamed European diplomat. Mr Kochavi said Israel believes the al Assad's regime will fall, with the only question being when, the diplomat said.

Mr Kochavi secretly visited Washington and the United Nations' headquarters in New York two weeks ago, Haaretz reported May 16. He met with senior White House and State Department officials as well as Defence Department Intelligence and CIA officials, according to an unnamed senior Israeli official. In Washington Mr Kochavi primarily discussed Iran's nuclear program, while in New York his focus was the crisis in Syria and Hezbollah's increasing power in Lebanon.

For the past few weeks Israel has been quiet regarding the security situation in Syria. Yet silence from Jerusalem is usually far more intriguing than noise. Syrian instability directly affects Israel, as potentially armed Islamist groups infiltrate their border in the north and because of the inexorable spread of Iranian influence.

Either way Israel feels it needs to remain involved in Syria somehow. As the situation escalates away from the tentative UN-arbitrated truce between Mr al Assad and the demonstrators, Israel will be keeping a close eye on events.

Nine people were killed and 40 wounded May 14 when Syrian regime forces shelled Rastan, a town 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Homs on Syria's main northern highway, Free Syrian Army (FSA) sources said, Reuters reported.

Rastan was hit by shells and rockets at a pace of one per minute starting at 3am and the town was destroyed, an unnamed FSA member said, adding that FSA commander Ahmad Ayoub was among those killed. FSA fighters battled army forces that included elite units and members of military intelligence, the source said. Whatever truce was in place is surely shattered now.

While it is unclear yet whether the violence of previous months will return, the fervour of the demonstrators appears not to have dissipated. Ceasefires are strategically useful as resupply opportunities and regroup plans can be conducted without threat of attack.

Syrian government troops have indeed used the brief interlude to fortify and reposition their forces around key areas in Syria. The rebels have probably not wasted the precious time either, and if the intelligence community is correct, the Syrian demonstrators are receiving covert assistance from outside powers in the form of weaponry and training.

Israel wants to get involved in the conflict because it is wary a strong Syria would effectively extend and solidify Iranian influence in a crescent from Central Asia through to the Mediterranean. Many Islamist groups in the Levant such as Hezbollah already receive instruction from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Israel has fought scrappy, battles with this group all but destroying their operational capability in Lebanon. But since 2006, the Shiite Islamist group continues to receive military assistance from Iran via Syria, and Mr al Assad was never hesitant to support the terrorist group as a legitimate entity.

The intelligence community in Israel and the US has known of the links between Persian power and various militant groups in the region for some time. Indeed, the Iranians do not hide their aid of the groups.

Iran can field probably the largest conventional military force in the Middle East now that the US military has left Iraq. Tehran has enough troops to blackmail any country aside from Turkey if the US were not to intervene - including Israel. Hezbollah in the past has attacked Israel and retreated both into Lebanon and Syria. This is why Israel is concerned with the current unrest in Syria.

Although the al Assad regime supports Hezbollah and itself is directly influenced by the Iranian government, Damascus probably still has the strength to contain and control militant actors within its borders. Mr al Assad and Tehran understand that, regardless of how much they may wish it, premature attacks on Israel by their militant proxies would bring aggressive retribution from a very capable Israel Defence Force (IDF). Besides, there are more pressing concerns at the moment.

Israel currently has friends in high places and a joint US-IDF retaliation would break Syria. Quieting the unrest in Syria and holding onto the leash of their militant proxies are of primary concern for Iran. For Tehran to be successful in the Levant, Mr al Assad must remain in power and in control of the country. Iran needs to retain the status quo.

But both Israel and the US are aware of these imperatives. They have been trying to counter Iranian movements in Syria since the unrest began in 2011. The intelligence community of both countries fear the demonstrations are the result not just of civil unrest, but Islamist groups travelling to the area.

Israel isn’t the only country to voice these concerns. Moscow believes that terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, carried out recent suicide bombings in Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Monday.

At least 55 people were killed and over 370 were injured in two explosions on a highway near the capital, Damascus, on May 10. “Terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, are behind the recent acts of terror in Syria, including al-Qaeda,” Gatilov said. “There are confirmed reports indicating that armed rebel groups enlist mercenaries from Libya and other Arab countries.”

Therefore there may be more to this high-level conference of intelligence officials than immediately meets the eye.

Neither Israel nor the US intelligence community wish for the Iran-Syria collaboration to intensify in the region. The potential for extended Iranian influence concreting is too high, but the possibility Syria will collapse and Islamist groups take over if Mr al Assad falls is probably not as high at this point.

There is the very real chance that Israel-US intelligence are using Islamist militants in Syria to destabilise the al Assad government. By overseeing or indirectly assisting such groups, Israel could bring down the regime thereby limiting Iranian influence permanently. This would then create a situation in which a more conducive government for Israel and US interests could take Mr al Assad’s place.

The Syrian rebel's current inability to unite also fits into Israel-US goals. If Mr al Assad steps down or is forced from power, a Sunni government may form. Having a Sunni majority government would act as a natural counterweight to Shiite Iran and might ensure continued Israeli security for the future. Regardless, Israeli intelligence is working hard to ensure the result of Syrian unrest is beneficial for Jerusalem.

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