Syria: whose side is Israel on?

We've long noted that the Israeli security establishment and its neocon allies in Washington are divided between those who would give Bashar Assad a healthy shove and those who would prop him with up as the Devil they know. One faction views him as a bulwark against the jihadists; the other as an ally of Hezbollah even more dangerous to Israel's interests. This is reflected in Washington's "strategy of equivocation," which has over the past five years seen the White House tilt now the rebels, now to the dictatorship. This provides convenient quotes from Israeli officials whenever some conspiranoid wants to prove the "fairy tale" that Israel is backing ISIS and other jihadist factions. One such specimen appeared in the Washington Post Jan. 19, when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told the audience that if he had to choose between ISIS and Iran as the new power in Syria, he'd "choose ISIS." 

However, the animated partisans sharing this story on Facebook leave out the second half of the quote: "We believe ISIS will be eventually defeated territorially after the blows it has been suffering, and in light of the attacks on its oil reserves." In other words, ISIS is a weaker and more manageable enemy, already being bombed by nearly all the Great Powers; whereas Iran is rapidly beefing up its military presence in Syria with hardly a peep of protest from the West. We aren't sure we share Ya'alon's sanguine view of ISIS, but it is utterly disingenuous to portray this as a statement in support of ISIS.

Another came Jan. 21 when The Independent noted that Israel is allowing some wounded Syrian rebels to convalesce in its hospitals, and quotes one such young fighter (of an unnamed faction) saying: "Putin is the big Satan, Assad is the little Satan, Israel is now a friend, they help us." Also quoted is Bashar Assad saying in a recent interview: "How can you say al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force." This is presumably a reference to  Israel's sporadic air-strikes on regime targets in Syria. But this is again the sleazy Assad-Putin propaganda trick of calling all Syrian rebels "al-Qaeda" or "ISIS."

Also, if you actually read past the lede (Heaven forbid!), there is much in the story that militates against the conspiracy theory. Israel's President Reuven Rivlin is quoted warning of a growing ISIS presence in the region—including within Israel: "The Islamic State is already here, that is no longer a secret. I am not speaking about territories bordering Israel, but within the State itself. Research studies, arrests, testimonies, overt and covert analysis all clearly indicate that there is increasing support for the Islamic State among Israeli Arabs, while some are actually joining ISIS."

The head of the Israeli military, Lt-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, also warned that the international air campaign against ISIS was forcing it towards the border with Israel and Jordan: "The success against ISIS raises the probability that we will see them turn their guns against us and against the Jordanians. In their strategy, there is logic in connecting Israel with Jordan."

Nonetheless, conspiranoid websites which obviously didn't bother to read the piece all the way through are posting it in triumphalist manner. The vile YourNewsWire.com (with the hilariously ironic kicker "News. Truth. Unfiltered.") runs it with a cartoon showing a plane labelled "Israel" and piloted by a caricatured Bibi flying into the World Trade Center! 

A more honestly presented specimen is from Haaretz of Oct. 31, 2014, in which an unnamed "senior officer" with the Israeli military's Northern Command really did state that the US air-strikes on ISIS strengthened the "radical Shi'ite axis" (Iran and Hezbollah).

But more to the point—these stories are cherry-picked. There are just as many countervailing examples ignored by the conspiranoia crowd. As we noted, IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz last January openly urged the West to support Assad against the jihadists: "The Western countries should be more pragmatic and put their own interests and those of Israeli at the forefront of their priorities and seek reconciliation between the Syrian regime and the moderate opposition, rather than enabling radical Islamist groups to achieve victory against the regime... The collapse of the Syrian regime would turn the region into a fertile ground for the jihadist groups with radical Islamic ideology, which will target Europe and Israel with their terrorist operations, in contrast to the Syrian regime which would never think of such steps if guaranteed to remain in power."

We also noted a report in Middle East Monitor last July finding that a growing number of Israeli military officials, politicians and pundits are calling for Netanyahu to prop up the Assad regime in order to keep the jihadis at bay. Ex-military intelligence official Azer Tsfrir was quoted saying that allowing the Assad regime to fall would mean turning Syria into a "black hole" in which the border areas could become launch pads for operations against Israel.

When the US began backing the Syrian rebels in 2014 (or at least pretending to), we noted that the Jewish Policy Center accused the US of "Training Syrian Rebels to Conquer the Golan Heights and Shoot Down Israeli Aircraft." Islamophobe and Israelophile pundit Daniel Pipes is also openly supporting Assad.

Once again: Read past the lede, and don't believe the hype.