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The Israeli Who Sneaked into Syria

My friend and colleague Jonathan Spyer sneaked over the border with the Free Syrian Army to cover the war against Assad from the front lines. He did it twice. And he’s an Israeli.

He has the chops for it. His magnificent first book, The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, is partly about his experience in South Lebanon, first as a tank operator with the Israel Defense Forces during the war against Hezbollah in 2006, and then again as a journalist the following year. I won’t tell you exactly how he manages to get around in these dangerous parts of the world on an Israeli passport, but he does, and we should be grateful because he produces outstanding work.

I recently spoke with him about what he has seen in Syria recently, what the West ought to do about it, and about the even greater threat from Iran and what the West ought to do about that.

MJT: You’re a brave man, Jonathan Spyer, for sneaking into Syria twice as an Israeli. Tell us what it’s like there right now and how things have changed since you were there nine months ago.

Jonathan Spyer: Well, the most immediately notable change between my first visit in February and the most recent trip was the extent to which the rebels have consolidated their control on the ground in the Idlib and Aleppo Governates. In February, the regime’s army was still patrolling the border. The rebels were entrenched in a number of villages and rural areas, but they ventured onto the main highway only by night and for short periods. Assad’s army was the ruling force, and it could enter even the areas flying the flag of the rebellion if and when it chose to.

This situation has changed. Today, the Assad regime hardly exists on the ground in the area between the Syria-Turkey border and Aleppo city, for example. The Free Syrian Army has joint control of a border crossing – Bab al-Salaam – in cooperation with the Turkish army. I took the main highway after crossing the border, heading for Aleppo city in the company of two opposition activists. The highway is policed by FSA checkpoints every few miles.

So the contraction of the Assad regime is very notable, and new. But this does not mean rebel victory is imminent. Rather, each side has advantages and disadvantages. With the pool of loyal manpower available to it depleted, the regime prefers to rely increasingly on its overwhelming technological superiority – above all in the field of air power. The rebels may largely hold the ground in Aleppo Governate, but they have no adequate response to the regime’s jet fighters and helicopters, which carry out attacks at will on the civilian population in the rebel controlled areas. The regime’s possession of artillery lends it a similar advantage. Similarly its armored capacity affords it a notable, though less significant, advantage over the lightly armed rebel forces.

An additional notable, though not new, element was the disparate and still not united nature of the rebel forces. In Aleppo city, in which I spent a few days, there are a number of different groups fighting the regime. In addition to the various battalions operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, there is the powerful Islamist Tawhid Brigade, also the Saudi supported Ahrar al-Sham group and a number of other groups. In interviews, rebel commanders did their best to put an optimistic slant on the absence of unity, but none sought to deny it.

MJT: What should the US do about Syria? Stay out of it? Arm the rebels? What?

Jonathan Spyer: My own view remains that the United States and its allies should engage closely with the rebels, identify deserving clients and begin to arm and support them. This has not yet happened to a significant degree and the result is the current stalemate. It’s understandable that many Westerners feel that given the rise of Sunni Islamism as a result of the downfall of secular Arab dictatorships over the last 18 months, the US interest is to stay out. Understandable, but wrong.

The US can either engage in the Middle East or disengage from it. The Obama administration appears to prefer the latter option. But disengagement doesn’t leave a vacuum. Rather, it leaves a space which is rapidly filled by advancing hostile interests – in the Syrian case Iran and Russia, with China as the silent additional partner.

These forces are currently backing the Assad dictatorship all the way. The Iranians, in particular, see the survival of the dictatorship as a cardinal interest. Should Assad or his regime survive in some form, this would represent a major strategic victory for the Iranians and their backers. It would keep alive the Iranian ambition of establishing a contiguous pro-Iran space from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea.

It would also convince regional elites that the Iranians are the people to align with if you want to stay in power. They will have backed their friends and been seen to prevail. This will be good for the enemies of the US, and therefore bad for the US.

US strategic capital has already suffered in the last 18 months because of the perception that Washington rapidly ditched long time allies as soon as they got in trouble. Egypt is the case in point here, of course. Syria should be the arena in which the US rebuilds that strategic capital, in the heart of the Middle East.

I understand well the argument that Sunni Islamists dominate the rebellion. My own view is that the organized, tight, Iran-led bloc remains by far the most pressing and dangerous enemy of the West in the region right now. Reality and history rarely give us the luxury of having only allies that are our ideological blood brothers. The 1939-45 period offers an example. The possibly dubious nature of our ‘allies’ should not be an excuse for paralysis in the face of an active enemy who has plainly declared his intention of replacing the US-led regional dispensation that has pertained in the region since 1991. It’s also important to note that there are significant secular elements in the FSA and the opposition. Still, these elements are nationalist rather than liberal-democratic in outlook.

Regarding the type of help, the list is a familiar one: arms, most importantly anti-aircraft weapons for the rebels, and a no-fly and no heavy armor zone in the north would be the most urgent first moves.

In other words, I think the Syrian situation presents an opportunity to deal the Iran-led regional bloc and its backers a very telling defeat. I think this opportunity should be taken, though I acknowledge the concerns regarding the people in the rebel movements and the ideas they support.

MJT: You say the secular elements of the Free Syrian Army are nationalist rather than liberal-democratic. Do you mean they’re Syrian nationalists, Arab nationalists, or a mixture of both?

Jonathan Spyer: An interesting question. Well, this rebellion is overwhelmingly Sunni-Arab in character, so while the secular rebels would certainly characterize themselves as Syrian nationalists first and foremost, the particular Syrian nationalism they espouse has a Sunni-Arab flavor. I don’t mean Pan-Arab nationalism of the old Baathist/Nasserite type, of course. Anyone still professing loyalty to that in Syria is firmly on the government side. The rebels fly the flag of the pre-Baathist Syrian republic. But the armed rebellion has an unmistakable Sunni Arab and rural nature to it, which makes it correspondingly difficult for it to win the trust of non-Arab communities such as the Kurds, and non-Sunni communities such as the Christians, Druze, and of course Alawis.

But I mean also that in a country which has been under Baath rule for nearly fifty years, we would be naïve if we thought the opponents of the regime hadn’t imbibed to some extent the style of thinking favoured and spread by the regime. The familiar cocktail of paranoia, the feeling that Israel is behind everything, the hostility and paranoia toward the West, one finds manifestations of these in the rebel ranks, too. This fact shouldn’t be concealed.

MJT: The relatively “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood used to be quietly popular there back in the 80s before Hafez al-Assad beat them to death in the city of Hama. Are they still popular? Or are they a marginal force like they are next-door in Lebanon?

Jonathan Spyer: Well, after the Muslim Brothers were crushed by the regime in 1982, Assad took extreme measures to make sure that they wouldn’t rise again. Muslim Brotherhood membership is an offense punishable by death in Assad’s Syria. So unlike in, say, Egypt, the Brotherhood didn’t have a ready-made infrastructure on the ground when the uprising began. But they have by all accounts been busy, and working in close cooperation with Qatar they are said to have built up direct links to various rebel battalions active in the country. I would imagine, without knowing for sure, that the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo is one of those. The powerful Farouq Brigade in the Homs area may well be another.

The Brothers have money and are well organized. They think, as you know, that they are now having their moment in the region after many long years of waiting. Hence their representatives are there in southern Turkey making deals, establishing supply lines, providing money, and building their structures on the ground. 

MJT: Do have any idea how many Syrians are supporting and/or working with the Salafist elements of the Free Syrian Army because there’s no other option compared with how many are supporting the Salafists because they genuinely sympathize with the Salafists?

Jonathan Spyer: Don’t know how many in terms of numbers. I saw a number of checkpoints of the Saudi-supported Ahrar al-Sham group at prominent places in Aleppo city, complete with Salafi banners. They’re certainly there. My sense was that they weren’t the most serious factor. I don’t think Salafiya as such has a particularly large constituency in Syria and I don’t think it will succeed in becoming a central political faction. Much more notable and important, I think, is the growth of Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism as a powerful element in the armed insurgency.

The Tawhid Brigade, for example, is the most powerful single armed unit in Aleppo. I interviewed one of the commanders of the brigade, and I would characterize its outlook a Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamist. Its members are critical of extreme, Al Qaeda-style Islamism, but they are also open about their own desire for an ‘Islamic state.’

I also met members of a hastily assembled Sharia Council in Azaz town. The council consists of religious former FSA commanders and religious notables. I was told that it currently constitutes the highest legal authority in the town, working in cooperation with the armed rebels. Again, I’d stress that the heartland of the rebellion is a very conservative, devout, Sunni Arab space. This rebellion has a religious coloration. At the same time, this does not imply the victory of Al Qaeda types.

MJT: You and I have both spent some quality time in Lebanon, me as a journalist and you as a journalist and as an Israeli soldier. So let me ask you this: what do you think about the Free Syrian Army’s threat to take the fight to Hezbollah in its stronghold south of Beirut?

Jonathan Spyer: I would take this quite seriously. From the FSA point of view, Hezbollah is a combat arm of the Syrian regime. Hezbollah has been advising and apparently participating in combat alongside the Syrian army and in cooperation with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps since the start of the Syrian uprising. The FSA has noted this.

The death of senior Hezbollah commander Ali Hussein Nassif earlier this month was only the latest evidence of Hezbollah’s deep involvement with the Assad regime. The Syrian civil war has already begun to spill across the borders of Lebanon and Turkey. Hezbollah has been engaged for many months in the harassment of Syrian oppositionists who found refuge in Lebanon. The FSA understands itself to be in a fight not only with Assad’s army but also with the regional alliance standing behind him, of which Hezbollah forms a part.

So it is quite possible that the Syrian insurgents may choose to strike back at Hezbollah in Lebanon itself at some stage. In many ways, the killing of Nassif (and reportedly other Hezbollah fighters) in fighting in Syria suggests that they have already begun to do so. The decision as to where to strike is ultimately tactical. But Hezbollah and the FSA are already at war.

Let me add a bit of anecdotal evidence regarding this from my own time in Syria. The hatred felt by FSA and other Syrian insurgent fighters toward Hezbollah is very intense. It of course also has a sectarian element. I have seen Hezbollah flags burned at opposition demonstrations in Idlib Province. In Aleppo last month, I interviewed a Tawhid Brigade fighter who referred constantly to the party as ‘Hizb a Shaytan’ (party of Satan.) It created a weird dynamic in our conversation because I would keep asking about ‘Hezbollah’ (party of God) and he would keep replying by referring to ‘Hizb a Shaytan’ until in the end I started feeling like I was acting as some kind of apologist for Hezbollah. Which I’m not. As you know.

In general, I think Hezbollah knows it has a great deal to fear from the rise of the Sunnis in Syria. If Assad falls and the rebels win, this will almost certainly mean a ‘renegotiation’ of the sectarian balance of power in Lebanon, too, to Hezbollah’s severe disadvantage. At that point, the organization will have to decide whether to accommodate itself to a new balance of power, or to fight to retain its dominance against a new, Sunni-dominated Syria and its Lebanese allies. Neither prospect is attractive to Hezbollah, so it is doing its utmost to preserve the rule of the Assad dictatorship.

MJT: Do you think Hezbollah will unleash its missile arsenal if Iranian nuclear weapons facilities are attacked? And if so, how much damage are we talking about here?

Jonathan Spyer: I think it is very likely that there will be action of some kind by Hezbollah against Israel in the event of any attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Hezbollah, after all, is entirely the product of a thirty year investment by the Islamic Republic of Iran. To a great extent, this investment was intended for precisely such a moment.

Hezbollah has re-armed since the 2006 war and possesses, we are told, around 60,000 short range missiles as well as a medium and long range missile capability, including the M-600 missile system. This would give them the ability to hit targets in central Israel. However, Israel’s aerial and artillery capacity is in an entirely different league, and in such an instance there would be few political constraints against a swift Israeli response. So the result of Hezbollah’s taking such action would be the devastation of Hezbollah.

MJT: Is Israel going to pre-emptively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities?

Jonathan Spyer: An Israeli attack of this kind, we can now say with some confidence, will almost certainly not take place before next spring. There are strong voices within the Israeli defense establishment who argue against an Israeli pre-emptive strike at any stage because of what they consider to be the limited damage that Israel could inflict and the very negative diplomatic fall-out (if you’ll pardon the expression) that would result from such a move.

Generally, I think that a nuclear Iran is not only, or mainly, Israel’s problem.

The Iranians want above all to replace the United States as the guarantor of security in the Persian Gulf region. This is because they understand the power that comes from having the last word in an area so vital to the global economy. A nuclear Iran is a step toward the Iranian domination of the region, of which domination over the Gulf would form the vital centrepiece. This isn’t only, or mainly, Israel’s problem, and I personally see no reason why Israel should act as the gendarme of the oil-rich Arab monarchies of that area, enabling them of course to hysterically criticize it in public and thank it from the bottom of their hearts in private. The Iranians may single out Israel for rhetorical purposes, but their ambitions are not focused only, or mainly, on Israel. I hope this point is being forcefully made in the discussions behind the scenes between Israeli officials and their Western counterparts. The opposition to Iranian nuclear ambitions should be Western, which of course means US-led or nothing.

Of course, if the Obama Administration decides it doesn’t want that responsibility, and the Iranians decide to push on and come close to the point of achieving a nuclear capacity, then Israel may have no choice but to carry out an attack which might only set the process back for a relatively short period. I hope it doesn’t come to this, and that rather a more determined, Western-led campaign, including crippling sanctions and clear red lines beyond which the use of force would be a certainty, can convince the Iranians not to move further ahead.

If force must be used to stop the Iranian advance, I don’t think it is either strategically wise or ethical for that force to be Israel’s alone. 

MJT: President Barack Obama repeatedly says he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Do you believe him? How many Israelis believe him? He’s letting Assad get away with murder, but he did go after Qaddafi and bin Laden.

Jonathan Spyer: I don’t want to interfere in the internal American discussion, but your question is nicely phrased so I can comment without doing that. Confidence in President Obama is very low in Israel. That is because his performance so far seems to suggest that he has little understanding of the Hobbesian world of Middle Eastern politics and the aspects required in order to build firm alliances and proxies here. From his Cairo speech and the abandonment of Mubarak to the vacillating and paralysis on Syria, he just seems to be singing from a different and wholly unsuitable songbook.

So I think very few Israelis have confidence that he will act effectively to prevent a nuclear Iran. No coherent red lines, including an outlining of the consequences of crossing them, means the Iranians will keep on moving ahead.

Obama wants out of the Middle East, as he himself has made clear. He’ll do counter-terrorism from the air against small, extreme jihadi groups. In Libya, I think it was the Europeans and specifically the French who got that rolling, with the US following on, though of course inevitably doing most of the heavy lifting in the end.

And frankly I think many Israelis also have the feeling, which we haven’t had for quite a few years, that the man in the White House right now isn’t a deep friend of our country, that he doesn’t understand or isn’t really interested in the story of Israel and the Jewish People, and consequently lacks a grasp of the deeper moorings which I think should underlie, and have in recent years underlain, the alliance between the US and Israel.

MJT: What is it specifically that President Obama does not understand? Surely he knows the Middle East is a much rougher neighborhood than Europe and North America. What else does he still need to grasp besides the obvious? What would you explain to him if you had his ear for a couple of minutes?

Jonathan Spyer: I would try to explain to him the dynamic of patron-client relationships in our neighborhood. I would explain to him that your clients don’t need to love you, don’t want you to bow to them, and don’t even really need to know that you respect them and empathize with them (though they will need you to at least go through the motions in this regard.)

What they need to know is that if they get into trouble (and they will) you will back them and help them to your utmost. If they think you won’t or can’t do that, they won’t want to be your client. They will prefer to be the client of another patron (probably your enemy or rival) who will be willing to do this. As a result, the value of your strategic coin will rapidly decline.

Right now, the net result of Obama’s losing Egypt/Tunisia/Yemen, and Iran/Russia/China’s non-losing of Syria, is that US credibility as a patron is low. Obama seems mainly dangerous to his friends, less so to his enemies, the killing of Bin-Laden notwithstanding. This is making allies nervous and enemies happy. This is not good. In particular, the most vulnerable allies (the Gulf monarchies) are very nervous indeed, and are seeking to organize themselves independently because of their impression that the US right now is not there. The trouble is that these countries are too weak for the job. As we see now in Syria, for example, they can’t deliver against Assad.

So the end result of Obama’s conceptual error is that the Iran-led alliance, which remains by far the most potent and dangerous enemy in the region, is holding up well, while what used to look like a US-led regional alliance no longer really exists. This, in my view, derives directly from the American President’s failure to grasp the basic rules for behavior as a patron in the Hobbesian space of the Middle East. So if I had a few minutes that’s what I’d tell him. But I’d tell him this without a great deal of enthusiasm, because I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t get it.

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center and is a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. You can purchase his first book, The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, at Amazon.com.


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