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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Isis vs Israel

As the Middle East continues to be torn apart in the fighting provoked by the Sunni gunmen of Isis across vast swathes of Iraq and Syria, Israel has unexpectedly intervened with an offer to provide "effective and reliable assistance to moderate Arab states who are dealing with extremists".

Israeli soldiers, left, and tanks, right, patrol in the Golan Heights along the Israeli-Syrian borderPhotographs: EPA
Israeli soldiers, left, and tanks, right, patrol in the Golan Heights along the Israeli-Syrian borderPhotographs: EPA

The proposal has been made by foreign minister Avigdor Liberman following his meeting in Paris with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Although no countries were named, sources close to Liberman say that he was thinking of neighbouring Jordan, a close ally of Israel, as well as oil-rich Kuwait, following an announcement that it will seek assistance from Iran in the event of an attack by Isis, which stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, with al-Sham meaning the Levant, a swathe of the middle east including Lebanon and Palestine.

Israel has also warned that it does not favour any rapprochement between the US and Iran especially if the deal encourages the regime in Tehran to continue its development of nuclear technology. It is not so long ago that an Iranian leader - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - threatened Israel with "nuclear annihilation". Ironically, if Israel ever fulfilled its offer of assistance it would find itself on the same side as Iran which is bitterly opposed to Isis and wants to shore up Shia regimes in Iraq and Syria.

The complicated nature of the current fighting in both those countries was explained on Friday by Major-General Israel Ziv, a former head of the operations branch in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Speaking at a news conference following a meeting of the Israel Project, a Washington-based educational trust, Ziv claimed that as Jordan has the longest border with his country as well as borders with Iraq and Syria, "any change or real threat that puts Jordan in instability has a direct effect on Israel".

He also pointed out that an estimated 2000-3000 Jordanian jihadists had been fighting with Isis and that many were returning to their homeland with the intention of fomenting violence. This chimes with a public statement which was issued last week by Isis's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ordering his Jordanian followers to spread their jihad and continue it in other states in the region, including Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Gaza and Sinai. This led to an outbreak of public threats by Jordanian jihadists aimed at King Abdullah of Jordan, demanding his execution on the grounds that the Hashemite king is a suspected heretic and apostate.

While slogans and political rhetoric do not in themselves pose a threat there have been several public demonstrations in the southern Jordanian city of Ma'an and this opens up the possibility of further problems to come. Because Isis thrives on instability and unrest there is always a danger that demonstrations could turn into full-scale rioting as a result of overzealous policing by Jordan's internal security forces. If that happens it would send alarm bells ringing in Israel where any threat to its own borders is taken very seriously.

The matter is complicated by Israeli concerns that Isis could make common cause with Hamas and Hezbollah which are in a state of virtual war with Israel and have been prescribed as terrorist organisations by the US. Two weeks ago three Israeli teenage boys were kidnapped and according to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu all the evidence points to the involvement of Hamas and this has ramped up existing tensions between the Israeli and Palestinian communities as the searches continue in Palestinian territory. The incident also has eerie echoes of a similar but larger scale kidnapping of around 150 Kurdish schoolchildren in the Isis-controlled city of Manbij in northern Syria.

The one benefit for Israel is that the fighting in northern Iraq has led to a military victory for the Kurds and according to Israeli diplomats a Kurdish state is now a "forgone conclusion". As Israelis and Kurds have age-old ties of friendship this has encouraged hopes of a working relationship should a new state of Kurdistan come into being.

One of the Kurds' first acts after seizing the northern city of Kirkuk was to export a tanker full of crude oil to Israel and this could herald the creation of stronger commercial and diplomatic ties between the two states. The new mood was reinforced in a message to President Barack Obama during a state dinner in Washington when Israeli President Shimon Peres told the US leader that the Kurdish victory was the one spark of good news to come out of the Isis insurrection. "The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic," he said last week. "One of the signs of a democracy is the granting of equality to women."

The reality though is that Isis has no immediate aims to encroach on Jordan and Israel. It still has to consolidate its gains in Iraq and to give more support to its operations in Syria where it is meeting determined opposition from the government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

For the time being this has to take priority but once Isis has managed to secure northern and western Iraq it will be free to turn its attention to the creation of its planned caliphate within the region. A major part of that plan is the need to liberate Palestine from what Isis fighters call "Zionist occupation" and they are convinced that it will be the next and final stage of the operation to gain complete control of the region. As one insurgent commander described the thinking last week during the course of a well-orchestrated television interview: "Tel Aviv will fall as quickly as Mosul when the time is ripe."

It has escaped no one's notice within the region that the al Sham in the organisation's title refers to the Levant which includes Palestine and the relatively modern states of Jordan and Israel. A notice posted last week on one of the many Isis websites says all one needs to know about the insurgents' desire to take the battle to Zion: "To all our brothers and families of the tribes and factions we tell you, you are not alone in this battlefield."

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