by Jim Lobe
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Joint Session of Congress here next week, will any of those in attendance muster the courage to ask him whether Israel is supporting al-Qaeda? None other than Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard strongly suggests that it is.
I know: it’s a rather shocking thing to suggest. And, thus far, LobeLog has only recently alluded to such support via the contributions in the past month (here and here) of Aurelie Daher, an expert on Hezbollah. Her analyses focused on the possible emergence of a second front in the confrontation between Hezbollah (with Iran) and Israel along the occupied Golan Heights on the Syrian side of the border, which has been controlled by anti-government forces for well over a year. And those rebel forces have been increasingly dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra, as noted by Aurelie.
Now, in the March 2 edition of The Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), reminded us that al-Nusra is “an official branch of al-Qaeda and openly loyal to al-Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.” Moreover, Joscelyn recalled that in their initial forays against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Syria last September, U.S. warplanes also attacked members of the so-called “Khorasan” Group, which was allegedly planning attacks against the United States itself, as well as other western targets. This Group, Joscelyn stressed, “is not a separate entity, but instead “deeply embedded with the Nusra Front.” In other words, there seems to be no question that al-Nusra is indeed al-Qaeda, at least insofar as the FDD and The Weekly Standard are concerned. And there is also no question that al-Qaeda has been very interested in attacking the “far enemy,” including the United States and Western Europe, for quite some time.
Of course, Joscelyn’s article didn’t address the relationship between Israel and al-Nusra. As the title suggests—“Doomed Diplomacy: There’s No Way Iran Will Ever Help Fight Al Qaeda”— it focused almost entirely on recapping all past U.S. government allegations regarding Iran’s alleged “sponsorship” of al-Qaeda going back many years. (Joscelyn just published a couple of new allegations—“New Docs Reveal Osama bin Laden’s Secret Ties With Iran”—Friday on the Standard’s blog that actually suggest a much rockier relationship than “Doomed Diplomacy.”) You can judge the merits of his case yourself, although I would also encourage you to take a look at a less tendentious analysis that Matt Duss published for the U.S. Institute of Peace, as well as a shorter piece by occasional LobeLog contributor, Barbara Slavin, for Al-Monitor.
But, while Joscelyn didn’t address the tie between Israel and al-Qaeda/Nusra, another article appearing in the same Weekly Standard edition—“Friend and Foe in Syria: The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Enemy’s Enemy”—by hard-line neoconservative Lee Smith quite remarkably did. The article is a compelling one: not only because it concludes that Israel is indeed colluding with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, but also because it makes abundantly clear that, in Smith’s words, the United States and Israel have reached “strategic divergence” across the Middle East. Stated another way, U.S. and Israeli interests in Syria and elsewhere are no longer the same (if they ever were).
Smith begins his article with Israel’s outgoing chief of staff, Benny Gantz telling a U.S. audience “that it’s important that the international community defeat both camps of regional extremists.” In the general’s view, Smith went on,
[O]n one side there are Sunni radicals, like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. On the Shiite side are Iran and the Revolutionary Guards expeditionary unit, the Quds Force, as well as Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias.
In saying this, according to Smith, Gantz was “tapping into a consensus position” that both sides are “equally bad.” But then Smith went on:
The reality, however, is that the government Gantz recently served has made clear distinctions between extremist groups in the Middle East, and has backed its preferences on the ground for certain actors in the Sunni camp. The Obama White House has also signalled its priorities, acquiescing to, if not actively supporting, the Iranian-backed Shiite axis.
(Personally, I find this latter assertion pretty questionable, since Obama has made pretty clear that his regional goal, as he told The New Yorker’s David Remnick a year ago, was to achieve “an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.” But let’s return to Smith.)
In explaining Israel’s preference for the Sunni (extremist) camp, Smith cites the January 18 Israeli strike on the Hezbollah convoy in the Golan Heights that killed six people, including five Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general. To him, this “was the clearest indication yet of Jerusalem’s top priority—Iran.”
The evidence that the Israelis have no such immediate concerns regarding the Sunni rebels fighting against the Assad regime is that this was the first time Israel targeted the region around Quneitra, Syrian territory that the rebels have controlled for a year. Presumably, for the present at least, the Israelis have turned a blind eye to rebel activities—even though those units surely include fighters from Nusra, one of the groups that Gantz says should be defeated.
Smith goes on to quote Tony Badran, who like Joscelyn is an FDD fellow, as confirming that Israel is providing assistance to the rebels on the Syrian side:
“Israel has provided medical treatment not just to Syrian civilians but also fighters. It’s a channel of communication, then, they’re talking to them, and likely sharing intelligence, in the full knowledge that these rebel units cooperate with Nusra against the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and the IRGC.”
Of course, he doesn’t say that such assistance is going directly to Nusra fighters, suggesting only that the aid is directed at more acceptable rebels who “cooperate with Nusra.” But that conclusion is contradicted not only by wounded Nusra fighters who claim to have been treated in Israel (at a cost of $1,000 per patient per day of treatment) and by UN reports that Aurelie noted well before the attack on the convoy and by the implication in Smith’s follow-up assertion:
It’s hardly surprising then that Jerusalem sees a vital interest in keeping IRGC troops off its border, even if that involves coordination with rebel groups that include Nusra forces. [Emphasis added.]
Smith goes on to make the standard neocon arguments that Obama is doing everything he can to get a nuclear agreement that will allow Tehran and Washington to pursue a joint strategy against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in the region (pace Joscelyn) and that, in pursuit of these ends, he has essentially adopted Tehran’s own view of the region.
The upshot is that the Obama White House has a very different picture of the region from Israel, and sees it almost exactly as Iran and its allies do. Where Israel’s security needs require it to hold its nose and work with Nusra-affiliated groups to keep the Iranian axis at bay, the White House makes no distinction between the Islamic State and Nusra, which it designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012. [Emphasis added]
But let’s recall Joscelyn’s contention that the Khorasan Group, which is allegedly planning attacks on the U.S. homeland and Western Europe, is “deeply embedded with the Nusra Front.” What if Khorasan’s members have regrouped in the Quneitra region where they may be better protected from government and/or Hezbollah attacks? In the interests of keeping “the Iranian axis at bay,” is Israel effectively—if unintentionally—providing these radical Sunni forces a safe haven? Is that something that members of Congress may want to raise with Netanyahu while he’s here?
Smith naturally blames the current situation and the resulting “strategic divergence” between the United States and Israel on Obama. He argues that, if Washington had intervened early in the Syrian civil war, these kinds of moral compromises wouldn’t be necessary and everything would presumably be hunky-dory, at least on the Golan front.
As many analysts warned at the time, if the White House stood by idly while the war raged, the conflict might destabilize every U.S. ally on Syria’s borders, including Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. Thus, it is largely the White House’s negligence that has compelled U.S. allies, including Israel, to partner with potential enemies against what they perceive as an even greater threat.
But Smith’s article is important, and not only for helping to confirm (and in The Weekly Standard no less!) reports of Israel’s effective cooperation (even sharing intelligence!) with al-Nusra/al-Qaeda. Without necessarily meaning to, the article also justifies the realpolitik that underpins Israel’s position, which, notwithstanding Smith’s weasel-worded subtitle, boils down to “the enemy of my enemy is someone I can work with.” For Israel, the “Iranian axis” poses a greater threat than al-Qaeda, so it offers the latter some cooperation and assistance, at least for now. But for western nations, including the United States, the logic of working out some coordination with Iran and its allies against al-Qaeda and its affiliates is much more compelling. (The same logic may also apply to Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda.)
But when Bibi starts talking about how Iran is the world’s greatest state sponsor of terrorism, I hope someone will ask what’s going on in the Golan.