Senior Israeli Official: ISIS' Downfall in Syria Only a Matter of Time

Israeli officials doubt Russia's claims of troops withdrawal, but voice careful optimism about Islamic State's demise; meanwhile, it's been a long time since Assad was so far from the Israeli border.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People inspect the damage after a car bomb exploded and targeted a religious center in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria April 5, 2016.
People inspect the damage after a car bomb exploded and targeted a religious center in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria April 5, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

On the Syrian Hermon, which for decades had been the Syrian army’s closest position facing the Israel Defense Forces, there is no longer a trace of the military that was once a threat of the highest order as far as Israel was concerned. The last of the Syrian commandos abandoned their outposts on the Syrian side last winter. Supply difficulties, along with the regime’s need to focus on defending other, more critical assets, led to the abandonment of the mountain. The only soldiers left there are the United Nations observer forces from Fiji.

There are now almost no locations along the Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights where Israeli and Syrian soldiers are facing each other. Along with the weak Syrian presence at Quneitra, the only enclave held by Bashar Assad’s regime, there is the Druze village of Khader on the slopes of the Syrian Hermon. Even there, the overt presence is of local Druze militias focused on defending the residents, although Israel assumes there are also cells active there connected to the Syrian army, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The first actual Syrian army positions are north of there, closer to the corridor that links Quneitra and Khader to Damascus.

More than a month after a cease-fire was declared in the Syrian civil war, the security establishment’s assessment that it would collapse is starting to be actualized, albeit much more slowly that first anticipated. Fighting has resumed in various parts of the country, from Latakia in the northwest through the area of Aleppo and Homs, to Daraa in the south.

The fact that the cease-fire does not include the most radical rebel groups of all, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), allows the Assad regime and the Russian air force to not only attack them, but to draw in other rebel factions that have sometimes formed local alliances with the Nusra Front. Many organizations have yet to join the cease-fire agreement; the Israeli assessment is that only slightly more than 40 of the rebel groups (out of more than 100) are committed to it. By the convening of the next diplomatic talks in Geneva scheduled for Saturday, it isn’t clear how much of the cease-fire will be left.

Israel is skeptical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration that he is withdrawing his forces from Syria. In fact, the Russians have withdrawn only one of two squadrons it was maintaining in the Latakia and Tartus region on Syria’s northwestern coast. There are still some 20 Sukhoi attack aircraft and four interceptors. The Russians are also operating advanced combat helicopters. Their air strikes have not stopped, even though the average daily number of sorties has dropped from 200-300 to about 100.

Putin’s announcement of the end of the military campaign was apparently aimed at boosting the diplomatic process he initiated in Geneva. Although chances of its success are low, Russia has clearly positioned itself as the one leading the way in Syria, both on the military and the diplomatic fronts. Moscow dictated the stabilization of the regime’s defense lines and then its advance toward conquering small bits of territory throughout the country, thanks to Russia’s air strikes between October and February.

Moscow is leading the diplomatic process, which the United States and Europe have been dragged into supporting. The Americans are still demanding that Assad be removed as part of the efforts to calm the fighting. But this demand is no longer necessarily an immediate one. The Israeli defense establishment believes that if the talks make progress and a diplomatic process can be realized, Putin would eventually agree to sacrifice Assad, so long as the regime itself remains in place so Russia can assure its control over the port at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast.

There is cautious optimism in Israel over one issue – the chances of overcoming ISIS, at least in Syria. The defeat the group suffered at the end of March, when it was forced to withdraw from Palmyra in the eastern part of the country, was no coincidence. ISIS is having difficulty holding the large territory upon which it declared its Islamic caliphate, especially in Syria.

It has found itself having to fight off too many attackers at once – the U.S., Russia, the EU states, Turkey, the Assad regime and numerous Arab states and rebel groups, including Kurdish factions. The various coalitions attacking ISIS have complete aerial superiority over the organization and the terror attacks it has committed or inspired in Paris, Brussels, California and Sinai have only intensified the hostility toward it. ISIS has also suffered a serious economic blow from the damage to its oil fields and its financial system.

A senior Israeli defense source told Haaretz that "the defeat of ISIS in Syria is a matter of time."

"It will mainly bring about an improvement in coordination between world powers and rebel groups fighting against it (ISIS), both the Sunni moderates and the Kurds," the source said.

Israel's impression is that the organization cannot cope with so many fronts and that it's expected to retreat under pressure from further territory in eastern Syria. The military campaign against it in Iraq, expected to focus in the coming months on an attempt to seize Mosul, will probably be involve more difficulties. Nobody in Israel's intelligence community, and the same goes for Western intelligence communities, has any doubt that ISIS intends to operate more terrorist cells in Europe and perhaps beyond, continuing with the attacks it has initiated in recent months.

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