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November 8, 2012 8:26 am

Jihadists’ Rise in Syria Complicates Options for Israel and the West

avatar by Sean Savage /

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (R) in action during a live fire exercise for Israeli army battalion commanders taking place in the Golan Heights, Sept. 4, 2012. Syrian tanks entered the Golan Heights demilitarized zone, raising concerns that the ongoing civil war could spill over into Israel. After Syrian tanks entered the Golan's demilitarized zone Nov. 3, Gantz told IDF soldiers the Syrian civil war "could turn into our affair

As the conflict in Syria continues to escalate, there are growing fears of an increasing radical jihadist role in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s government—complicating options for the West and presenting new threats for Israel.

Syria’s beleaguered Christian community, which comprises 10 percent of the population, is witnessing the growth of radical jihadists firsthand.

“They wanted to kill us because we were Christians. They were calling us Kaffirs [infidels], even little children saying these things. Those who were our neighbours turned against us,” one Syrian Christian told the UK’s Independent.

Syrian Christian religious leaders blame recent influx of Islamic radicals. Responsibility for the attacks lay with “an influx of jihadists in the rebels in the last six, seven months,” Archbishop Issam John Darwish said.

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Another prominent and widely respected Arab Christian leader, Mother Agner-Mariam, claims that many of the jihadists are affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood and are veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. And now, “their cause is being recycled to kill Syrians,” she said.

But Syrian Christians are not the only ones detecting the rising tide of Islamists in Syria.

Jackson Diehl, in a recent column in the Washington Post, pointed out that as the Syrian conflict drags on, “the more likely it is that what began as a peaceful mass opposition movement would be hijacked by extremists, including allies of al-Qaeda.”

Diehl highlighted the growth of an al-Qaeda linked group called Jabhat al-Nusra, which has grown from 50 members last spring to over 1000 today. According to Diehl, they can be seen at the forefront of the recent battles against Assad’s forces in Aleppo.

So what options are there for the West and Israel? Assad, given his alliance with Iran and support for terrorist groups, has been a traditional foe. However, the al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups present a new threat and enemy.

Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum, told that he believes Israel and the West prefer to let the conflict play out, as it restrains both Assad and the Islamists.

“From Israel’s (as well as generally the West’s) point of view, protracted internal Syrian conflict is optimal, for it hobbles the aggressiveness of the Assad regime while keeping the mainly Islamist opposition out of power,” he said.

Recent estimates by activists have more than 36,000 dead in Syria since the conflict began in early 2011. This only increases calls for the West to do more; however, history has shown that Western involvement in that region can have serious repercussions and consequences. During the Lebanese Civil War, a suicide bomber linked to Hezbollah and Iran killed 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French soldiers, who were there as part of a peacekeeping force.  And nobody needs to be reminded of the recent Iraq war.

But Israel may have little choice, especially if it faces attacks emanating from an unstable Syria. On Nov. 3, Syrian tanks entered the Golan Heights demilitarized zone.

The day after the Syrian incursion, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz toured the border region and instructed the IDF to be on high alert in the area. Gant warned the soldiers, “The Syrian affair could turn into our affair.”

IDF soldiers also told Gant that they could hear tank and automatic weapons fire as well as shouts of “Allahu Akhbar” from the Syrian side, according to the Jerusalem Post.

An IDF jeep was also reportedly hit by stray bullets from rebel forces.

However, for the time being, the IDF believes that the incursion was part of the ongoing civil war and not direct aggression against Israel.

Nevertheless, Israel faced a similar situation from Lebanon 30 years ago. Israeli forces invaded to root out the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and to support its beleaguered Christian allies. But that conflict eventually became highly unpopular in Israel. Hundreds of Israelis were killed, and that eventually led to an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon that some believe contributed to the rise of Hezbollah.

Israel, like the West, faces no good options as this point, especially as the Syrian conflict devolves into sectarian chaos tainted with Islamic extremism like Iraq, and Lebanon before it. But as Archbishop Darwish warned, doing nothing might only lead to greater consequences.

“I have raised this with officials in the West, they must bring peace,” he said. “The jihadis will not stop here, the war will spread to Europe. What will England be like in ten or 15 years?”

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