Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Israel’s Relations with the Syrian Rebels: An Assessment

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Israel’s Relations with the Syrian Rebels: An Assessment

Article excerpt

Editor's Note: A number of articles have been published in recent weeks on the subject of Israel's relations with the Syrian Arab rebels in the area east of Quneitra Crossing. Some of these articles have suffered from an absence of on the ground knowledge and sourcing. The Rubin Center is therefore proud to present this MERIA special report from Rubin Center Fellow Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, which represents the most in-depth and serious study on this important issue to have appeared until now.

-Dr. Jonathan Spyer (Editor, MERIA)

INTRODUCTION

June 2017 saw a spike in media coverage regarding the situation on the borders between Israel and Syria, particularly focusing on Israeli support for certain Syrian rebels in Quneitra governorate in conflict with the Assad regime.[1] For the first time, these media reports have identified a specific rebel group receiving Israeli backing: Fursan al-Jawlan ("Knights of the Golan"), a group based in the rebel-held town of Jubatha al-Khashab that lies just opposite the Druze town of Buq'atha in the Israeli-held Golan Heights. This article will partly aim to provide further insight into Fursan al-Jawlan and the situation in Jubatha al-Khashab, particularly in relation to the broader conflict between the Assad regime and the rebels that is the main fault line in Quneitra governorate.

Further south along the Golan Heights is a border with the southwest part of Dar'a governorate. The Syrian side of this border is currently controlled by a group called Jaysh Khalid bin al-Walid ("The Army of Khalid bin al-Walid"- JKW), which is linked to the Islamic State and engaged in a war with Syrian rebel factions to the north and east of its holdings, which also share a border with Jordan, a participant in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. Media coverage of this area has noted the fact of the shared border between Israel and JKW, but little insight has been provided into the group's internal dynamics. Indeed, some recent developments of interest have largely gone unnoticed. For purposes of clarity, this article will examine the southern Golan front first and separately from the situation in Quneitra governorate.

JKW: INTERNAL DISRUPTION AND NO IMMINENT THREAT

JKW was formed in May 2016 in the Yarmouk Basin area of southwest Dar'a governorate, principally constituting a merger of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (YMB), the Muthanna Movement and the Mujahidin Group. The latter two were groups that had been forced to take refuge in the Yarmouk Basin over the course of 2015-2016 on account of their conflicts with other rebel groups in Dar'a and Quneitra governorates, with accusations of links to the Islamic State.

YMB, on the other hand, was by far the largest group and native to the Yarmouk Basin, controlling several villages from its main base in the village of Jamla where YMB had originated. YMB had been at war with other rebel groups since at least the end of 2014, beginning with the assassination of YMB-linked cleric and Afghan jihad veteran Abu Muhammad al-Masalama in November 2014 and culminating in an open clash the following month with Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria's al-Qa'ida affiliate that accused YMB of links to the Islamic State. These accusations were in fact correct, though there was not much open-source evidence to corroborate them at the time and the claims were not universally accepted. Yet following the clash with Jabhat al-Nusra, YMB's affinities with the Islamic State-as well as its wider animosity towards the other rebel groups-became more obvious.[2]

In turn, the formation of JKW made the links between JKW's constituent groups and the Islamic State clearer. In the open-source evidence, the relations became evident in the production of reports and notifications on JKW activity and developments in the Yarmouk Basin through the Islamic State's Amaq News.

Apart from a brief clash in November 2016 involving a few JKW members, no security incidents have arisen for Israeli forces. …

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