Analysis |

Choosing Between Hezbollah and the Islamic State

Trying to work out which groups the West will befriend in Iraq and Syria is almost as difficult as reaching a consensus on how to tackle Islamic State.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A woman waiting for a family member to cross through the Quneitra border passage.
A woman waiting for a family member to cross through the Quneitra border passage.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Although Islamic State’s homepage declared that the organization, along with other opposition groups, had taken over the Quneitra crossing between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights, and even though its flag was hoisted nearby, IS isn’t there yet. Rather, it is the Nusra Front, along with the Syria Revolutionaries Front – an alliance of a dozen Islamist organizations working together with the Free Syrian Army – that control the border crossing.

This mishmash of organizations, some of which are deemed moderate by the U.S. State Department while others, such as the Nusra Front, are affiliates of Al-Qaida, makes it difficult for the United States and Europe to formulate a strategy to deal with them.

In contrast to Iraq, in which IS controls a continuous territory – making it easy to conduct an aerial bombardment campaign – the complexity of organizations in Syria and their territorial dispersion prevents any concentrated effort against them. The American dilemma is clear: should one view President Bashar Assad and his army as allies, part of the solution in the dismantling of IS? Should the Free Syrian Army receive sophisticated weapons so it can effectively fight IS, in light of its failures on other fronts, and amid justifiable concern that these weapons would pass into the hands of more radical organizations, as they did before?

How should one relate to the fact that the Free Syrian Army is collaborating with the Islamic Front, not noted for its pro-Western stance, and with the Revolutionaries Front, some of whose members used to belong to the Nusra Front? Adding to the mix of deliberations is the unknown reaction of Iran if the United States starts bombing targets within Syria, as well as the unclear reaction of Russia, whose relations with the Americans have recently deteriorated to an unprecedented low in modern times.

This dilemma does not exist in Iraq, where Iran and Russia concur with the need to forcibly remove IS. One possible solution, which may not be practical, lies in an initiative by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who is expected to propose the establishment of an Arab and international coalition of states under the aegis of the Arab League, which will take action to remove IS. The condition for establishing this coalition is the removal of Assad in Syria. This idea meets with approval in Washington, D.C., which also favors an international coalition.

Russia and Iran are expected to oppose this idea. As long as this coalition is not formed and as long as the United States does not give opposition groups quality armaments, IS can continue with its plans.

The working hypothesis regarding Iraq is that IS will be content with solidifying its control over the Sunni areas it took possession of in June and will not advance southward and toward Baghdad, where there are large formations of Iraq’s military forces, as well as armed Shi’ite militia groups.

Things are different in Syria. The concern is that IS units will advance southward toward Daraa in order to remove Assad’s forces from that region, as well as removing the Nusra Front, which already has some strongholds in the south. From there, IS could continue toward Jordan.

This leaves Assad and Western countries with a terrible paradox. Is it preferable that the Nusra Front and Islamic groups acting alongside it control Quneitra, preventing IS from moving southward? Or should the intentions of Assad – along with Hezbollah – to take control of the border crossing be ignored?

This is also a difficult Israeli dilemma. While the Syrian army controlled the Golan border, there was quiet for four decades. Now the choice is between Assad and Hezbollah forces sitting on Israel’s northeastern border, and between the Nusra Front and other organizations controlling it.

Israel Defense Forces assessments are that neither Hezbollah nor the Nusra Front wishes to open a new front with Israel at this time. This assessment also contends that IS, despite its loud verbal campaign directed at Israel, is a group that acts with military logic and will not risk dragging Israel into its conflicts. IS is overstretched in Iraq and Syria, and must now collaborate with others in order to maintain control. It must cooperate, willingly or from necessity, with civilians, tribal and other local leaders in order to rule.

However, there is a difference between maintaining control of a town or region and the conquest of new objectives, which requires moving fighters between different areas. The political objectives of IS are unclear. Will it make do with controlling the wide swaths of land it conquered, including most of the oil fields in Syria and some in Iraq? Or does it plan to adopt the Taliban model in Afghanistan?

According to this model, a decade after they were removed from power by the American invasion, their “moderate” wing – to use that vague and meaningless term – became desirable and even crucial partners for dialogue in the eyes of the new Afghani regime, following American encouragement. In the absence of any other strategy, Syria and Iraq could find themselves in the same situation.

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