Israel’s Deepening Involvement in the Syrian War
Israel has recently been intensifying air strikes and the arming of anti-government forces in Syria, some of which are close to Al Qaeda. Professor As’ad AbuKhalil explains how Israel’s activity in Syria is part of a larger pattern of its overall foreign policy engagement around the world
BEN NORTON: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Ben Norton reporting from New York. While the war in Syria has been winding down, Israel has been ramping up its support for anti-government rebels inside the country. A report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted that the Israeli government is supporting at least seven Islamist groups in the occupied Golan Heights, an area of Syrian territory that has been illegally occupied by Israel for five decades. Israel is directly providing Syrian rebels with arms and ammunition, as well as giving them money to buy more weapons. This follows previous reports that Israel has given assistance to al-Qaeda in Syria, treating wounded Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in its hospitals free of charge.
Earlier this month, Israel launched airstrikes on a dozen Syrian and Iranian targets inside Syrian territory after an Iranian drone allegedly entered Israeli airspace. The founder of Syrian al-Qaeda praised the Israeli attacks and called for more on Syria. A top Israeli Air Force official furthermore revealed that the Israeli military has carried out thousands of missions in Syria in the last year alone. The Lebanese government, on the other hand, has condemned Israel for repeatedly violating its airspace in order to launch attacks on Syria. Lebanon filed a formal complaint with the United Nations, but the Israeli airstrikes have continued.
We are joined to discuss this issue by scholar, As’ad AbuKhalil to discuss Israel’s attack and support for opposition groups inside Syria. As’ad AbuKhalil is a leading expert on Middle East politics. He’s also a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, and he regularly writes at his website The Angry Arab News Service. Thanks so much for joining us As’ad.
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Thank you for inviting me.
BEN NORTON: Professor AbuKhalil, we’ve heard for a long time in many mainstream media reports, even from government officials that Israel has played a neutral role in the war in Syria, that Israel has simply just been watching and the war has been going on now for seven years without any kind of intervention from its Israeli neighbor.
What do you think about this talking point? Of course, we now have in the past several months seen media reports that demonstrate that this narrative is completely wrong. What has Israel’s role been in the war in Syria? And why does this narrative continue to dominate much of the discourse on the war?
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, I think that the notion of Israeli neutrality about any conflict throughout the region, if not the whole world, is absolutely fallacious given the record of Israeli involvement in so many affairs of the world. I mean, if you look at Latin American and Africa, Israel has always been involved, always on the worst side of any conflict. So, even if there are two bad sides, you can always bet Israel on the worst side.
And in fact, anybody who has studied the contemporary history of the Arab world will notice that Israel has been heavily militarily and politically. and through its intelligence involved in civil war wherever it erupted throughout the region. If you are talking about the Western Sahara of the 1970s. If you’re talking about the Southern Sudan conflict in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, if you talk about the Jordanian Black September of 1970, if you talk about the Lebanese civil war for over a decade, if you talk about the Kurdish revolt in Iraq in the 1960s and ’70s, if you talk about the Omani rebellion in Dhofar in the 1970s, if you talk about the Yemeni conflict, the first one in the 1960s or the current one, Israel is heavily involved. And we can add that now to the record of Israel, the Syrian civil war. There is no question Israel has been involved.
Now, it is very important to note that I am not saying that all rebels in Syria are agents of Israel. But on the other hand, it is certainly clear that the Syrian conflict has gone out of the hands of the Syrian people and has become a multiple proxy wars between a variety of parties. And each side has its own reflective middle militias inside the country. And just like Israel operated in Lebanon, we know its method of operation. It is not that sneaky. It is too obvious to notice that it has armed, sponsored, coddled, helped, sheltered various militias of its own inside Syria that were doing Israel’s bidding.
So, there are two levels of Israeli involvement in the Syrian war. One is direct sponsorship and arming and financing of certain militias. There are two militias that are named even as arms of the Israeli occupation army inside Syria. And there are others that we don’t even know the names of, that some of them operate within the larger umbrella of this broad name of Free Syrian Army. But as you point out in the intro, Israel has been extremely close with the al-Qaeda in Syria. I mean, if only the American people would know that the largest recipient of US military economic aid has been in very strong alliance with al-Qaeda operating in Syria for the purposes of Israel.
The second layer of its involvement is, of course, Israel has now become a very close ally of Gulf countries throughout the Middle East, and as a result it is safe to assume that all of the militias that received Qatari or UAE or Saudi funding and arming are also facilitated and helped by the Israelis. And I heard a Palestinian from the United States who visited occupied Palestine of 1948, and she visited hospitals inside occupied Palestine, and she says since the beginning of Syrian conflict, there are certain sections of hospital that are completely cordoned off, where people are banned from entering because that’s where al-Qaeda has been receiving the humanitarian assistance of the Israeli occupation government.
BEN NORTON: You mentioned, of course, that Israel has intervened in many conflicts throughout the world. You also mentioned Latin America, especially the civil war in Colombia, the wars in Central America. It’s also interesting because we’ve seen this kind of counterinsurgency tactic that was used in those wars in Central America has been imported into the Middle East, especially in the war in Syria, also the war in Iraq before that.
And part of that counterinsurgency strategy is to ramp up tensions and violence at a moment where it looks like there may be some kind of political diplomacy and a move toward winding down the conflict. So, when it looks like the war in Syria is finally coming to a conclusion, after many years of horrific destruction, why do you think we see reports that, of course, not just Israel but Israel and other US allies are actually increasing support for rebels instead of winding down that support and moving toward peace?
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: In response to this question, I can say when we speak about conflict in the Middle East today, it would not be an exaggeration if we refer to Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia interchangeably. There is such a solid, firm alliance by the three governments that they are now operating far and beyond the borders of Syria. There are such mutual cooperation-
BEN NORTON: And of course, they’re all backed by the United States.
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: All backed by the United States, no doubt about that. And the United States looks with great favor, to use the language of the Balfour Declaration, at such cooperation between its Gulf potentates and the occupation government of Israel.
I should also say that as a student of the Lebanese Civil War, and I was writing about that in Arabic the other day, Israeli and Israeli militias inside Lebanon has throughout the war been responsible not only for the instigation of the war itself in 1975, I mean, Israeli militias have been receiving training and arming by Israel since the 1960s, and they were basically edging for a conflict because the aim of Israel was to smash the Palestinian resistance movement.
And throughout the conflict from 1975 until 19, say, ’91, whenever there was a lull, a ceasefire, militias of Israel were always the first to violate the ceasefire because they wanted a prolongation of the conflict. They did the same in the Iran-Iraq War. They did the same in the Southern Sudanese conflict. They did the same in the Yemeni conflict, and they have certainly been doing the same in Syria.
Israel feels much more secure if its neighbors are basically diverted by civil war on their own to that it will allow Israel to interfere more heavily in their own affairs. And so, it makes sense that Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel, this triangle, does not want in any way to achieve a modicum of reduction in hostility or a certain arrangement that would reduce violence. They want the prolongation of the suffering of the Syrian people, no question about that.
BEN NORTON: And what do you think about the state of the Syrian opposition that Israel and other countries are supporting? I mean, clearly, there’s no question that the Syrian government is very repressive. This is an authoritarian police state and we constant hear that repeated correctly in many media reports. But what we never hear is the state of the actual opposition that is backed by the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Who are these rebels exactly? And why are they never really named in detail, and why is their politics never actually acknowledged in media reports?
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, like you said, in Syrian conflict, I don’t find personally any desirable party to the conflict. I am neither a fan of the oppressive Syrian government, which has a bloody record not only against its own population but also against the left wing and Palestinian resistance movement in Lebanon, which in 1976 smashed our dreams [of] establishing a progressive republic in Lebanon when it intervened on the same side of pro-Israeli militias in the country.
In the case of Syria, however, I feel that early on in the conflict, there was a desire on the part of Western media, and governments, and Gulf regimes to present an image of Syrian rebels who are democratic, feminist, and sometimes even progressive Marxists. And Western media, the correspondents in Beirut, those who have been the lousiest correspondents of any region that I have ever seen in my own lifetime, have made such an effort to beautify and to distort the record of who these rebels are in order to create public opinion, support and sympathy on the part of these rebels.
Now, however, the conflict has gone on long enough for us to really discard all these clichés and propaganda labels that were bestowed on these rebel groups. And now we know they basically were middle militias of various countries. There were some militias that were loyal to Turkey, some were loyal to Qatar, some to the UAE, some Saudi Arabia, some to the US government, to various branches of the US government military intelligence apparatus, some to Jordan, some to Israel.
And as a result, the welfare and the desires of the Syrian people were discarded by all these groups. And of course, there was intervention by other parties like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran, Shiite militias. So, it was a free-for-all. And that’s why we can say this conflict has slipped out of the hand of the Syrian people, really.
BEN NORTON: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on in the Golan Heights? Many of these reports about Israeli support for rebels are specially about rebel groups inside the occupied Golan Heights, which according to international law have been illegally occupied by Israel for five decades. This is sovereign Syrian territory. So, can you speak a little bit more about the conflict there?
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, what scares Israel, of course, and Israel should be scared like any occupation power is that resistance groups from Lebanon that have been very effective in humiliatingly defeat and embarrass the mighty Israeli army in 2006 and even prior are now establishing presence inside Syria close to the borders. Israel wants eternal rule for its occupation throughout the Middle East, in Palestine and elsewhere. Israel still occupies lands that belong to Jordan, to Palestine, to Syria, and to Lebanon, and wants that to continue forever and wants the world to find this brutal occupation to be pleasurable by the people under its rule.
Well, it’s not going to be like that. And for that reason, Israel wants to expand its zone of hegemony and rule in the Golan Heights area and beyond it, and to prevent any presence from resistance groups from Lebanon to establish a foothold there. Some of them, by the way, are secular group. They’re like the Syrian Social National Party, which is one of the political parties in Lebanon which believes in Greater Syria and has had a very long record of fighting and resisting occupation of Israel of all Arab lands.
The Israelis also are very much of the opinion that only Israel should have the right to interfere in Syrian affairs and to violate Syrian airspace and territory. And well, that has changed, and that’s what is irksome to the occupation government of Israel and wants to change that. It is also the case where, just like they did in Lebanon in 1976, Israel is wanting to establish through some Syrian rebels, militias like the South Lebanon Army to become a vehicle of its own terrorism and occupation, and to basically protect the occupation of Israel.
BEN NORTON: We’ll wind down here, but I want to get your opinion on this last point. We have these many mainstream media reports now that acknowledge that Israel is funding, training and supporting many of these rebel groups inside Syrian territory. Yet at the same time, we’ve heard many figures in the West who claim to be pro-Palestine activists, many of them are supportive of or very soft on Gulf monarchies, who insists that one cannot oppose the Syrian opposition. Specifically, I’m talking about the opposition, regardless of what you think about the Syrian government, the argument they’ve made is that if you truly support liberation for the Palestinian people, you must also support the Syrian opposition, despite the fact that it is entirely bankrolled by many of these very reactionary, also hyper-authoritarian regimes. What do you think about that argument?
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, I don’t think anybody should tell me who should I support and should not support. And I certainly do not take dictates from representatives of Gulf regimes, who now control the bulk of Arab media and much of Arab social media as well, and they will decide the criteria of support for the Palestinians. I find that ironic given the lousy record of Gulf regimes against the Palestinian people.
Look at the way they have covered up the relocation of the US embassy from occupied Jaffa to occupied Jerusalem with tacit Arab government support. They are very much in the same trench with the state of Israel, and I believe certainly that the, look, I do believe that advocacy for Palestine should be predicated on …and I do believe that. Advocacy for Palestine should not be tainted with ties to oppressive governments that have bad records on the Palestinian question.
In that regard, I put the Syrian regime for sure because it does not have a good record at all on the Palestinian question. But I also put there Syrian rebels and exiled Syrian opposition that have, not all Syrian dissidents, but those elements of the Syrian opposition that have been sponsored by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and Israel, and Jordan, and the United States and Europe because they also have not been in any way vociferous in advocacy for Palestine prior or even during this conflict.
And most importantly, advocacy for Palestine is predicated on the support for human rights of individuals, and that support should be universal whether it is in Palestine or in Syria or in Lebanon and certainly also in Gulf countries.
BEN NORTON: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us Professor AbuKhalil. We always appreciate your insight.
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Thank you very much for hosting me. Thank you.
BEN NORTON: Reporting for The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.