Last summer in the occupied Golan Heights, an Israeli military ambulance ferrying wounded fighters from across the border in Syria came under attack by Druze.
Rebel fighters had been inadvertently straying into Israeli-held territory for years. But these fighters in the ambulance were different: they were members of the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra, which has been fighting Bashar Al Assad’s forces with varying degrees of success.
As the chaos of the Syrian civil war deepened, Al Nusra and other extremist groups have taken advantage of the security vacuum to rally support from external governments, reportedly including Turkey and the United States. Israel’s role in aiding these fighters, however, had been shrouded in secrecy until the episode on the Golan Heights.
As the Israeli ambulance sped towards a field hospital with two wounded Al Nusra fighters, it encountered a large group of Druze blocking the road. The Druze, a small Muslim sect who live in Syria, Israel and Lebanon, have been largely on the sidelines of the Syrian war but have remained loyal to Bashar Al Assad's government. Recently there has been sporadic fighting between the Druze and extremist groups like Al Nusra inside Syria.
In June, Druze in Syria alerted their brethren on the other side of the border that the Israeli army was treating Al Nusra fighters who had been wounded fighting the Druze. On the Golan Heights, Druze attacked the Israeli ambulance convoy with stones, eventually attacking the wounded fighters. When the dust settled, one Nusra fighter was killed and another was unconscious from the blows of the mob.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu then held a special meeting with Druze leaders to keep the situation under control. Despite the fact that this episode was reported extensively in local and foreign press, the Israeli army continues to deny its links to Al Nusra.
When Hizbollah operative Samir Kuntar was killed in an Israeli targeted assassination in Syria two weeks ago, Tel Aviv’s foothold in the conflict came under renewed inspection. Hafez Al Assad, who ruled Syria before his son, often joked that the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights was the quietest in the Middle East, but since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, things have steadily heated up.
While Israel has tried to keep its involvement in the Syrian war under wraps, there are several things we know about its participation. First and foremost, Israel has been carrying out air strikes against Hizbollah targets throughout Syria. Ostensibly, these air strikes are tailored to keep Hizbollah from obtaining Syrian chemical weapons.
In the 2006 Lebanon war, the Iranian-backed militia became the only Arab fighting force to unconditionally force Israel to retreat from Arab land occupied in the course of battle. Hizbollah has an extensive rockets cache that can reach any part of Israeli territory, as well as an elaborate network of underground bunkers in southern Lebanon that the Israeli military has never succeeded in fully destroying. It makes sense that Israel would want to keep Assad's chemical weapons out of Hizbollah's hands.
In Syria, Hizbollah has endured heavy losses; it is operating outside its normal strongholds in a country where it doesn’t have the support it enjoys in Lebanon, and the war appears to be wearing the group’s resources thin. In a sign of its dwindling human capital, the group has recently ratcheted up recruitment with promises of cash for new fighters.
For decades, Iran and its proxies have been Israel's primary enemies. Now that those groups are fighting a draining war in Syria, Israel is taking the opportunity to hit them with air strikes. An uneasy alliance between Israel and radical extremist groups fighting in the region – as last summer's episode on the Golan seemed to confirm – is not beyond comprehension.
There are, however, other geopolitical issues that raise questions concerning Tel Aviv’s true objectives in Syria, such as Israel’s alliance with Russia.
In October, Russia revealed that it was sharing intelligence about its air activities in Syria with Israel. Russia’s embassy in Tel Aviv said the country would not take any action that endangered Israel’s national security. Russia has taken an active role in the Syrian conflict to support the Assad regime and its only Mediterranean Sea port on the Syrian coast near Latakia. Israel’s tacit support or assistance to Al Nusra extremists poses a problem for the Assad regime and, by extension, the Russians.
In a sign of Tel Aviv's role, Russia's special envoy on Syria was reportedly in Israel at the weekend for secret talks on a diplomatic solution for the conflict.
All of this is not to mention Israel’s role in the sale and movement of oil through Turkey from fields controlled by the Kurds in Northern Iraq and ISIL in Syria. If proven, Israel’s covert purchase of ISIL’s oil puts the country at odds with all sides.
Tel Aviv has long tried to keep its foreign policy objectives hidden from view by neither confirming nor denying its involvement in critical events. While this strategy has worked well until this point, the situation on the ground is spiralling out of control and Israel’s influence will be easier and easier to detect on the ground.
The question is what will happen when the war ends. Will Israel be willing to end its occupation of Arab lands and create a lasting peace with the Palestinians when the Syrian conflict is over? If so, a new chapter of normalisation could be an ironic result of the great changes unfolding in the region. Or is Israel merely exploiting the chaos of war – a chaos from which it continues to benefit.
On Twitter: @ibnezra