A fighter in one of the many Syrian militias who are so intent on fighting each other or Assad’s forces that Israel has effectively ceased to be the enemy. Photo from DW January 2014, picture-alliance/DPA.
By Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh, The National
March 02, 2014
AMMAN AND BEIRUT // As fighting intensifies on Syria’s southern front, details have emerged that Israel may be paying large sums of money to rebels for information on Islamist fighters near its border.
At least three rebel factions in southern Syria have been in regular contact with Israeli intelligence officials, and have each received more than one tranche of funding worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to a well-connected rebel commander who is familiar with operations in the zone bordering Jordan and Israel.
“When they run out of cash, they contact the Israelis,” he said of fellow commanders in the area, a practice he said did not bother him.
Syria and Israel have been in a state of war since the late 1940s but traditional enmities and alliances are being reshaped by an unfolding chaos.
While many rebel factions remain vehemently anti-Israel, some are taking a pragmatic stance and are willing to cooperate with their historic enemy if it helps defeat the president, Bashar Al Assad.
Meanwhile, Tel Aviv is facing the prospect of Islamist militants taking control of border areas, incongruously once secured by the authoritarian regime in Damascus with which it was technically at war.
Israel has been quietly giving Syrian refugees and rebels medical aid, affording it an opportunity to make contacts with opposition fighters and collect intelligence.
That operation appears to extend beyond small golden-handshake payments to individual fighters leaving hospital, according to the rebel commander, although with approximately 60 rebel factions in the southern area, there is no suggestion that Israeli financing has played a significant role for the overwhelming majority, which depend mainly on the Gulf for money.
“We don’t have any problems with any party that reaches out to help us topple the regime but we do not want to implement any [external] agendas,” the commander said.
Backed by an injection of weapons and cash from the US and Gulf states, rebels on the southern front launched a new military offensive last month following the failure of peace talks in Geneva.
“The aim of the new operations is to put pressure on the regime to seriously negotiate. We don’t have the weapons or fighters to take Damascus but we can still put real pressure on the regime,” said a rebel involved in weapons procurement in the Damascus countryside, part of the operations zone.
It is a strategically important region, encompassing the borders with Israel and Jordan, and giving rebels a gate to Damascus, away from the Mediterranean coast and central Syria, where Alawites and ultra-loyalist regime factions have been consolidating control.
Using heavy artillery in some of their assaults, rebels have made gradual advances in Deraa province, seizing control of Tal Al Hash, Tal Ruqat Khazneh, the location of a regime military depot, and surrounding a military facility in West Nawa near Tel Al Jabiyeh.
They have also pushed to the outskirts of Quneitra, a town close to the Syrian frontier with Israel – all areas once heavily garrisoned with regime troops.
But the gains have not been dramatic and forces loyal to Mr Al Assad have also increased their activity in the south, intensifying a campaign of barrel bombing and airstrikes – within about a kilometre of the Israel border, according to one rebel unit in the area, something they said they had not previously seen.
A tank unit, re-routed from the southern side of Damascus, has also been sent down to Deraa province in the past week, according an opposition figure monitoring troop movements.
“Control of supply routes are a crucial issue for us now, we need to cut of the routes for the regime to supply and reinforce its troops,” the rebel involved in weapons procurement said, but he acknowledged the scale of the task was enormous.
“The regime is smart, they have moved and used their forces very well so far.”
Localised ceasefires in and around Damascus may have given the regime an opportunity to reallocate troops and blunt the impact rebels hoped to have had in contested zones around the outskirts of Damascus.
On Wednesday, regime forces ambushed what they said was a column of 175 Islamists fighters trying to leave the Eastern Ghouta, apparently killing everyone in the column. Syria’s opposition said the dead were mainly civilian refugees being escorted out of besieged areas by fighters.
And while rebel commanders say their international backers have recently promised them advanced weapons, including shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles known as Manpads, they remain elusive.
“Unfortunately nothing in terms of the advanced weapons has happened yet, no Manpads have arrived, everyone is waiting for them,” Syrian National Council spokesman Khalid Saleh said on Thursday.
Serious divisions within rebel ranks also continue to hamstring their efforts. Last week the Supreme Military Council (SMC), a command centre supposedly orchestrating opposition forces but with little influence on the ground, was embroiled in a farcical change of leader.
The SMC’s deposed head, General Selim Idriss refused to step down, while his replacement, Brigadier General Abdul Illah Al Bashir, a rebel officer based in Quneitra, said he had been unaware of his promotion until it was announced in the media.
Another positive sign for rebels, however, has been a growing push against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (Isil), an Al Qaeda-splinter group that all other rebels factions have run out of patience with. It has pulled back fighters to Raqqa province, which may enable mainstream rebels to focus once again on fighting regime troops.
While claims of large Israeli payments in exchange for information could not be independently confirmed, a senior rebel heading a unit in the southern area said one of his fighters had abandoned a different battalion over Israeli financing.
By that account, a young fighter developed contacts with Israeli intelligence after being wounded and sent to a hospital in Israel for treatment, where he was questioned about Islamist factions.
After recovering and returning to his unit late last year, the rebel fighter told of the intelligence contact to his commander, who decided to tap the Israelis for funding.
Using a pre-arranged channel of communication to Israeli intelligence, the rebel officer asked for US$100,000 (Dh367,000), and was told he could have that and more in exchange for precise details about extremist groups.
The young fighter had misgivings about taking money from Israel, which occupies the Syrian Golan Heights in defiance of UN rulings, and abandoned the group to join another brigade before any money changed hands.
Rebels who have helped transport the wounded across the border for medical treatment say the Israelis are most interested in Jabhat Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, and other powerful Islamist groups including Harakat Al Muthanna, Ahrar Al Sham and a number of less well known units.
Israel faces a dilemma over the Syria war, with enemies on both sides of a complex, multi-dimensional conflict, a problem it has in common with Syria’s rebel factions, which are fighting the regime and its supporters, as well as each other.
Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite group fighting on Mr Al Assad’s side, is a major concern to Tel Aviv, but so too are extremist Sunni rebel groups – also enemies of Hizbollah and the regime – who may one day turn their guns against Israel.
Syrian rebel groups are, similarly, fighting on two fronts, against the regime and Hizbollah, and against Isil.
A rebel commander in the southern region who has contacts with the internationally-staffed operations room that supports rebels out of Amman, said it had been made clear that Israel would do whatever it takes to protect its frontiers.
“Israel wants to maintain its security at any price,” he said.