Spreading Out in Syria, ISIS Approaches Israel’s Golan Border

Three local jihadist groups that were fighting against the Assad regime in the southern Golan swore fealty this week to ISIS.

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Smoke billows from buildings in Quneitra in Syria during reported fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and Islamist rebels, Nov. 18, 2014.Credit: AFP

For the first time since the Syrian civil war began in early 2011, Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has gained a presence near the border with Israel on the Golan Heights.

According to Arab media reports, three local jihadist groups that were fighting against the Assad regime in the southern Golan swore fealty this week to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Until now, ISIS had no presence near the border with Israel, though other rebel groups did. Over the past few months, the rebels have pushed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces out of most of the area near Israel, and today they control about 90 percent of the border region – from the point where Israel, Syria and Jordan all meet in the south to a few kilometers beyond the Quneitra border crossing in the north. Assad’s forces control only the area around Mount Hermon and the Hader enclave south of the Hermon, which contains several Druze villages.

The rebel forces controlling the border comprise a loose coalition of numerous groups, including the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida; the Free Syrian Army; and several other militias, both Islamist and secular. As Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon confirmed in an interview with Haaretz in October, Israel maintains low-profile ties with the more moderate rebel groups and provides medical treatment in its hospitals to residents of the area under their control. Ya’alon added that “this happens on condition that [these militias] don’t allow the more radical groups to reach the border.”

But now, a new player, the most radical of all, appears to have entered the picture. According to Arab media reports, three small Islamist factions – Shuhada al-Yarmouk, the Abu Mohammed al-Tilawi Brigades and Bayt al-Maqdis – announced earlier this week that they are transferring their allegiance to ISIS.

The largest of the three, Shuhada al-Yarmouk, comprises a few hundred armed men, while the other two contain only several dozen each. All three are concentrated around Daraa, the town in southern Syria where the rebellion against Assad began. Daraa is several dozen kilometers from the Israeli border, but some of the newly minted ISIS fighters hold positions just a few kilometers away from the border.

In November, something similar happened in Sinai, when the largest Islamist group operating in the peninsula, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, also swore fealty to ISIS, just a year and a half after having been recognized as the Sinai branch of Al-Qaida. Experts in global jihad organizations say these organizations are transferring their allegiance from Al-Qaida to ISIS because the latter is seen as the rising power. It is becoming increasingly popular, with numerous operatives and sympathizers, and it also has enormous wealth that can be shared with its new loyalists, thanks to the oil fields it controls in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

Though Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ primary target is the Egyptian government, it has also attacked Israel on occasion. The most noteworthy one occurred in August 2011, when its operatives infiltrated Israel and killed six civilians and two members of the security forces at Ein Netafim, north of Eilat.

On the Syrian border, in contrast, jihadist groups have so far made no real attempt to attack Israel. But even though Israel isn’t currently high on these groups’ priority list, focused as they are on their war against the Syrian army and Hezbollah, the intelligence community believes they might try to attack Israel as well. Given this, the new declaration of loyalty to ISIS is considered a worrying development that must be monitored closely.