Friday, April 12, 2013

12-Apr-13: This is how things look on Israel's border with Syria, "the world's largest weapons warehouse"

Today's Syria: This was Aleppo [Image Source: Christian Science Monitor/Reuters] in August 2012.
Since then it has gotten worse.

The terrorist organization called Al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI, is reported this week to have merged with the Syrian terrorists who call themselves Jabhat al-Nusra. Post-blending, the two will operate as The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [source: "Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra make it official", Christian Science Monitor, April 11, 2013]

Jabhat al-Nusra is reputed to be one of the best supplied - and therefore one of the fastest growing - of the Syrian opposition fighting groups, with much of its support believed to come from Arab states, statelets and oil-rich emirates of the Gulf. It was officially designated a terrorist organization in December 2012 by the US State Department which pointed out at the time that Jabhat al-Nusra
"has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.”
It's a little noted but important part of the horrifying bloodbath taking place north of Israel's border: more than 65,000 dead as of this month, and March 2013 was the bloodiest month so far [source: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights]. For a sense of what this means on the ground - we mean Israeli ground - there are some remarkably frank quotes from authoritative Israelis reported in an article ["Israeli Soldiers Enter Syrian Golan Heights"] by Inna Lazareva, a British journalist based in Tel Aviv and published on the Al Monitor site two weeks ago.

Lazareva quotes the most recent report of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on the work of UNDOF, the UN Disengagement Observer Force (established by the UN in May 1971 to keep the peace on the Syria/Israel border). We wrote a month ago [see "10-Mar-13: On Israel's Syria border, the UN 'peacekeepers' are afraid to go out after dark"] about the kidnapping of 21 UNDOF military personnel by the Syrian 'opposition'. UNDOF until recently included soldiers/peacekeepers from six countries. Today, only the Philippines, India and Austria remain because of the heightened and growing danger. Some excerpts from Lazareva's article follow, some of them quite surprising and almost entirely unreported elsewhere:
  • "On March 8, while 21 UN observers were being held captive by Syrian rebels, another group of observers was running for their lives. Caught up in fighting between the Syrian army and rebels, they fled down a steep mountain. There, they were helped by Israeli Defense Forces soldiers who entered the Syrian Golan Heights to rescue them.
  • [The UN troops came under attack and according to Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, deputy commander of the IDF's Depth Corps] "had to leave their posts [and] escaped by going down the cliff and climbing by foot to the Israeli border... They were in a very bad situation,” and IDF soldiers had to cross into the buffer zone to rescue them.
  • "Yet the danger is not limited to the UN forces deployed there. The [Ban Ki Moon] report also warns that the instability in the Syrian Golan, particularly the buffer zone with Israel, could “jeopardize the cease-fire between the two countries and the stability of the region.”
  • Today, half of the Syrian Golan Heights is captured by the rebels, and not held by the Syrian army anymore,” said Hirsch, emphasizing Israel’s extreme concern about the situation on its northern border. Calling the area “ungoverned,” he described it as controlled “by many fundamentalists who are just running to this area in order to capture bases and build their infrastructure to use it later against Israel.” Israel is now building a high-tech fence system on its border with Syria to stop infiltrators.
  • “The main problem in Syria,” Hirsch said, “is its huge, huge store of weapons.” Syria has become “one of the biggest warehouses for weapons in the world, including weapons of mass destruction.” 
  • "He added, “That’s a huge threat for us because we don’t know who will capture the WMDs and the advanced weapons that Russia supplied over the years to Syria, and who will be able to use them against Israel or, via the terror organizations already here, on the rest of the world in terror activities.”
  • "One group in particular, Jabat Al Nusra... is operating increasingly closer to the Israeli border... Israeli government sources said that despite al-Nusra having set up just 14 months ago, it has carried out more attacks and inflicted more damage on the Syrian regime than any other opposition organization. 
  • "Itamar Rabinovitch, a professor of Middle East history at Tel Aviv University and Israel’s former ambassador to the US, said the activities of Jabat al-Nusra are “potentially very serious, in two ways. One is that when Assad falls — and I think it’s a question of ‘when,’ not a question of ‘if,’ the central government might be replaced by an Islamist or perhaps even a jihad-oriented, radical Islamist movement. The second is that there may be a terrorist or a jihadi takeover over parts of the country, and the country could at least for a while become fragmented, with the Alawites and the Kurds having autonomy and jihadi elements … possibly even gaining control of some of the weapons of mass destruction. Some of these areas may be close to the cease-fire line with Israel, and in that case, Israel will have to deal with it.”
  • [Meanwhile according to Hirsch] “Hezbollah, as a front guard of Iran, acts here, trying their best to preserve and restore Assad’s rule [and] preparing this area [Syria] as a launching site for terrorism [in addition to their deep emplacements in Lebanon]
  • "One Israeli university academic, an expert on Islamist movements who prefers to remain anonymous, said that Jabat al-Nusra has two aims. In the short term, “they want to make war against Assad... There’s no doubt that after they succeed in ousting Assad, they will open another front against ‘the crusaders... After they succeed in the first stage, they will continue onto the ‘main’ stage: the quest for the 'Bilad el Sham' — a name in Islam for the district of Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. The historical Syria, the greater Syria. There are traditions from Prophet Muhammad about the importance of this specific district in the Day of Judgement, and this is a very important foundation to the motivation of al-Qaeda for using the situation in Syria to make war against Israel.”
Arab-on-Arab atrocities, a daily part of Syria's civil bloodbath: This image
[source] from the Times of London and published
on October 14, 2012
, shows a Jabhat al-Nusra gunman
cold-bloodedly pumping bullets into prone Syrian soldiers in Aleppo
So how is Israel dealing with this apocalyptic threat? As usual, in ways that are little known and even less appreciated. Following are some excerpts from a lengthy analysis ["Israel may be operating in Syria", Noga Tarnopolsky] published in Canada's GlobalPost on Wednesday:
  • "Israeli military personnel are operating in non-combat capacity in an area across Israel‘s border with Syria, GlobalPost has learned... Israeli security forces have entered Syrian territory to identify wounded Syrians and administer basic medical care across the border.
  • "A senior Israeli source told GlobalPost that wounded Syrian rebels who have received medical care in Israel “are transported across the border only once they are positively identified and receive initial emergency medical treatment while still on the other side,” meaning on Syrian soil. This indicates a much higher level of activity by Israel in rebel-held lands than has previously been acknowledged
  • "It also is a sign that Israel is willing to put some of its own personnel in significant peril in order to retain some semblance of order at the national boundary line.
  • Late last month, after 11 Syrian citizens were treated in Israeli hospitals, AFP reported that the Israeli army set up a field hospital on the Israeli-Syrian border to provide emergency care on-site. The army spokesman has refused to comment on the report.
  • [Quoting a retired senior officer who commanded the IDF's Golan Division until he retired in August 2012] "Behind the scenes there are steps being taken to prepare. We haven’t set up a field hospital for thousands. But there is some preparation, more ambulances, more doctors, more medical equipment. We’re ready. It’s only logical... It’s a terrible situation there. Injured people are dying in the field because of a lack of medical treatment. Sometimes they just bleed. If possible, caring for them on the border without bringing them into Israel is better. I think the army is doing things in the field... The State of Israel doesn’t need to take sides in the war...”
  • "Israeli Defense Forces spokesman, Capt. Eytan Buchman, did not deny the possibility. In a written statement, he replied, “The IDF places a great deal of importance on the provision of humanitarian care when necessary. As such, we have provided initial medical assistance to a number of Syrians over the past few months. We cannot at this time comment on the process that takes place during such incidents. The IDF’s primary goal is to provide for the safety and security of the State of Israel and its residents.”
The Canadian report quotes the director of Acute Care Surgery at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital:
“A severely wounded patient came to us after having been operated on elsewhere”...adding that his surgical records were written down in Hebrew, on unmarked pages. “The patient arrived with gunshot injuries to the stomach and left chest, liver and diaphragm injuries and also chest wall right lung injury. He arrived here to the surgical ICU two days after initial surgical interventions were performed.” The unidentified patient eventually regained consciousness and was weaned from a ventilator. He remains under 24 hour a day guard. Doctors expect to release him soon. Asked whether he knew anything about the identity or the provenance of his patient, Bahouth replied, “I never ask. I have no idea. I’m not interested. I received the information I received and we managed his care and stabilized him. We did our job... In general,” he said, reflecting on years of trauma care, “I’ve learned not really to believe what patients with gunshot wounds or the victims of knifings tell you. They always have something to hide. So I don’t ask.”
Keep the image of those Israeli soldiers providing emergency medical care to Syrians as you slowly raise your eyes to the two photos we reproduced above, both of them from Aleppo, a city of two million plus, larger than Damascus and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The devastation and savagery; the merciless destruction and sacking; the religious zealotry that underlies it all. That's what Syria looks like from here. 

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