'Entry of radical Islamist forces into northern Syria is disturbing,' ex-Israeli intelligence official says
October 25, 2019
(JNS)—Israel has been closely monitoring Turkey’s brutal offensive against the Kurds in northeast Syria in recent days.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the Turkish invasion on Oct. 10, stating that Israel “warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies,” and that “Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”
However, Israel’s concerns with regard to the Turkish operation extend beyond Ankara’s conflict with the Kurds.
Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate’s research division and director general of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, told JNS that the strengthening of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated extremist Sunni forces in northeast Syria “should disturb us.” He stressed that Turkey had launched its offensive with “problematic, radical forces, who are exploiting the U.S.’s wish to leave this area.”
In addition, said Kuperwasser, who is the director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Iran could exploit the situation with its own Shi’ite militias.
“Iran could fill in the vacuum left by the United States in northeast Syria, which would enable them to establish a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon,” he told JNS. “It could project onto Israel, though not immediately.”
Speaking before the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) signed a cooperation agreement with the Assad regime on Sunday night in response to the Turkish assault, Kuperwasser stated that “if the Kurds feel distressed, and American pressure can’t stop the Turks, they will try to link up with Assad, as well as with the Russians and the Iranians, with a request to cooperate with them.”
Islamic State, too, will likely benefit from events in Syria, said Kuperwasser, since “all of the others are busy with one another.” ISIS has been “hit hard,” he said, “but it is not defeated, and if pressure on it is relieved, it could come back.”
Retired four-star U.S. general Joseph Votel, former commander of U.S. Central Command, issued a stark warning in an op-ed for The Atlantic last week about the dangers of an ISIS resurgence.
Trump’s decision to pull special forces out of northern Syria, wrote Votel, “threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against ISIS and will severely damage American credibility and reliability.”
The decision, he wrote, “was made without consulting U.S. allies or senior U.S. military leadership and threatens to affect future partnerships at precisely the time we need them most.”
While Israel can provide humanitarian assistance to the Kurds of northern Syria and also apply diplomatic pressure, said Kuperwasser, military intervention is out of the question.
Asked how the rapidly escalating events in Syria might impact regional security, Kuperwasser said it is still too early to tell.
“The power of the various actors, and the weight of U.S. deterrence, is being tested,” he said, adding that “this is still at an early stage. It is not yet clear where it is headed. Hence in this context, we have to wait and see what the repercussions are.”
One thing that is clear, said Kuperwasser is that these events have no direct repercussions as far as U.S.—Israel relations are concerned.
“The depth of the U.S. commitment to Israel is very different” from its commitment to the Syrian Kurds, he said.
Regarding the ongoing threat posed by Iran in Syria, Kuperwasser said that Israel “has no choice but to defend itself by itself, and it will continue to do this.”
He added, however, that while Israel “is acting decisively to prevent an Iranian base in Syria, what is important in this context is that the economic American pressure on Iran continues.”
So long as sanctions are maintained, he said, “Despite pinpoint [Iranian] achievements on the ground, the infrastructure of Iran is still eroding. They can’t hold on for a long time without money. It all costs money in the end.”