September 20, 2012

Disturbing Scenario in The Golan Heights
by Avi Melamed

Firas Al Absi, also known as, Abu Mohammad Al Shammi, reportedly the leader of Jihadist group called Majlis Shurah Al Dawla Al Islamiya in Syria, was apparently kidnapped and assassinated. His body was found few days ago near by the Syrian – Turkish border passage of Bab Al Hawa.

Alabsi was 40 years old, a dentist by profession, the son of a Syrian family from the area of Aleppo, but grew up in Saudi Arabia. As a young man he joined Al Qaida in Afghanistan. Upon his return to Saudi Arabia he was arrested and imprisoned for one year and was then expelled forever. He lived in Sudan for seven years and went back to Syria shortly before the breakout of the uprising. He quickly rose in the ranks to become a senior leader in of one of the Jihadist groups which today fights against Assad’s military in Syria.

The jihadists fighting in Syria come from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, and Turkey and reportedly from remote places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of these militants bring with them operational experience and military knowhow. Some of the most severe attacks that Assad’s forces have sustained were perpetrated by these groups.

The total number of Jihadists in Syria is unclear. One source claims that the Jordanian intelligence agency estimates there are 6,000 men – this number should be taken with a grain of salt. It is more likely to estimate the number to be in the hundreds – of which, apparently 150 militants are members of Majlis Shurah Al Dawla Al Islamiya, which is also affiliated with Al Qaida.

The role of Al Qaida in the war in Syria is somewhat unclear. Reports point to two names of Al Qaida affiliated groups in Syria. One is the one I have been discussing here – Majilis Shurah Al Dawla Al Islamiya (this name is also used by Al Qaida affiliated groups in Iraq) and the other is Jabhat Al Nusra L’ahl Al Sham. Based upon some reports, one could come to the conclusion that there is only one group that uses two different names. On the other hand, according to other reports, one could deduce that Jabhat Al Nusra L’ahl Al Sham is a separate group, which operates in the city of Aleppo under the leadership of a person named Abu Ibrahim whose possible real name is Abd Al Rahman Al Salamah.

Who killed Al Absi and why?

According to some sources, Al Absi was killed by a group called Katibat Al Faruk Al Shimal which operates under the umbrella of the FSA – the Free Syrian Army – now called the National Syrian Army. A spokesperson for Katibat Al Faruk Al Shimal denies the organization’s responsibility for the killing of Al Absi, however, it seems as if the accusation is not totally groundless. Last June Katibat Al Faruk Al Shimal broadcast a video announcing that Al Qaida, as well as other Jihadist groups, were not welcome in Syria. There may be an additional reason to associate Katibat Al Faruk Al Shimal with the killing. Apparently, Al Absi’s Majlis Shurah Al Dawla Al Islamiya took over the Syrian-Turkish border crossing of Bab Al Hawa. It is very likely that Al Absi was assassinated in a skirmish between the Free Syrian Army and Majlis Shurah Al Dawla Al Islamiya over control of the border crossing.

The relations between the FSA – the major military force of the Syrian rebels – and the Jihadist groups which also fight Assad are quite complex.

Both sides share the same immediate objective – to end Assad’s rule. It’s even possible that both sides are fighting side by side towards that end. But, the relationship between the sides is also tense, given the fact that each side holds totally different and conflicting visions regarding the character of Syria in the post-Assad era.

Syria is crushed. Almost 30,000 Syrians been killed in the war so far. A staggering 3,000,000 Syrians have become refugees inside Syria. They try to find shelter in schools, parks, and public facilities. More than 500,000 have fled Syria. Many of them live in improvised refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.

Syria’s cities are destroyed. The roads and physical infrastructure are severely damaged. Municipal and governmental services have collapsed. Enormous quantities of weapons are available, kidnapping and massacres of one ethnic group against another have become a daily phenomenon. The chaos that rules large parts of Syria provides Jihadists with an ideal ground to operate – and they are growing in numbers.

Assad’s downfall seems to be inevitable. The question is – what will the situation in Syria be in the post-Assad era?

One gloomy scenario is that the violence will spread and increase, resulting in the disintegration of Syria into ethnic entities. This analysis is a not without merit – the conditions for its realization exist on the ground. In a breakup of the country it would be likely to expect further and wider activity of Jihadist groups in Syria.

Yet, it is possible that in the post-Assad era, a new Syrian government, which enjoys legitimacy, would be able to restore order and to start the painfully log road to recovery and to rebuild Syria. The conditions for the realization of this scenario also exist on the ground. If this is the case, it is possible that Jihadist groups will not be able to thrive.

Finally, yet not less important, is the Israeli perspective. If Jihadist groups expand their presence and activity in Syria, it will not take long before the security reality in the Golan Heights – which was very calm for almost two generations – will dramatically change, and the area will become a major source for security threats against Israel.

Jihadist groups perpetrated some lethal attacks on Assad’s troops only few miles away from the Isreli – Syrian ceas fire in the Golah Heights. It is very likely that Jihadists are already collecting intelligence along the cease fire line learning the routine on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights.

If Jihadist groups have fertile ground to flourish in Syria, the security threats Israel will face in the Golan Heights will be even more dangerous than other threats Israel faces along its other borders – Hezbollah in Lebanon; Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip; and Jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula – for a couple of reasons:

First, unlike the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and, Lebanon, who are governed by governments which are held accountable, a Syrian government – should one be established – may be powerless to impose authority or to restrain the Jihadist groups.

Second, Jihadist groups – unlike other enemies of Israel – like Hamas or Hezbollah, do not determine their behavior based on political calculations. The only agenda these groups are committed to is the establishment of one global Islamic Caliphate – and that end justifies all means, regardless of the price involved. These groups are not deterred by military might and they are totally indifferent to civilian casualties and destruction.

Third, on top of the familiar terror attacks – rocket launches, attacks on military posts and patrols and civilian targets – these groups, unlike Hamas or Hezbollah, will not hesitate to use more advanced weapon systems, such as surface to air missiles, chemical weapons and weapons of mass-destruction should they obtain them.

Should Jihadist groups begin to root themselves in Syria the challenge must be answered swiftly and decisively on the ground in one of the following ways: the U.N. Security Council must pass a resolution (similar to the one they passed for southern Lebanon) that deploys international combat units on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights or, preferably – the deployment of NATO forces.

Failing to restrain the Jihadist groups and preventing attacks on Israel, will force Israel to fight these groups inside Syria on the Syrian side of the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights