DEBKAfile Exclusive Analysis April 22, 2017, 8:25 AM
The Syrian shells exploding on the Golan were ringing in Israel’s ears on Friday, April 21, when US Secretary of Defense James Mattis flew out after talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The IDF spokesman accounted for the first mortar shell dropping on northern Golan as an accidental stray from the fighting in Syria. When the shelling continued, it was countered by an Israeli strike on a Syrian military target on the other side of the Golan border.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report that this incident, far from inadvertent, followed on the surreal scene Thursday of a Hizballah officer taking reporters on a “tour” of Israel’s defense lines and proudly pointing a finger across the border to “explain” how the Zionist enemy was reduced to defense..
No less divorced from reality was the short Mattis visit to Israel. After the mandatory smiles were exchanged between hosts and visitor, the situation on Israel’s northern fronts with Syria and Lebanon remained as enigmatic as before his arrival.
Secretary Mattis was clear on how the United States proposes to help Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi fight the Islamic State terrorist menace on three fronts, Syria, the Red Sea and Libya. His answers with regard to Syria were in sharp contrast vague and noncommittal, leaving Israel unclear on the following pivotal points:
While the American Raqqa operation is on the cards, nothing was said about its aftermath.
Where do US-Russian military relations stand in Syria and what must Israel expect to happen next?
Since Russia has gathered the Syrian fighter jets under its wing, how will Israel be able to take action in Syrian air space when necessary to uphold its security interests?
What if Syria defies the American threats and continues to use chemical weapons? Mattis confirmed that the Syrian government has retained an unspecified amount of chemical weapons and dispersed its aircraft following a US cruise missile attack earlier this month. It is beomcing clear, however, that the Assad regime’s sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 was a well-planned overture to an all-out offensive to capture the northern Idlib province, where 50,000 rebels are barricaded with their families. Some are refugees from other areas trampled by the Syrian army. Many are associated with Al Qaeda and other Islamist organizations. The Assad regime will now resume that offensive and no doubt again resort to chemical weapons.
What is US policy regarding the Iranian forces fighting in Syria and their Shiite militia proxies? Where does Washington stand on Hizballah?
Will the US go through with a former Trump plan to establish security zones in Syria with the help of Jordan and Turkey?
And most importantly, how far does the Trump administration support Jordan’s military steps in southern Syria? Our military sources report that Syrian rebels backed by Jordanian intelligence and US air support have gone on the offensive against Islamic State forces in a southeastern area ranging from the edge of the Druze mountains up to the Iraqi border. The Jordanian offensive is slow-moving, which attests to hesitance in its intelligence services over how far to go. Israel is most concerned by the battles taking place in the last few days in Deraa, the main town in southern Syria not far from its northern border.
What is to be done with the ISIS affiliate, Khalid Ibn al-Wallid Army, which is parked in the Golan-Yarmouk pocket at the junction of the Syrian, Israeli, Jordanian frontiers?
The last two questions call for clear US answers, because if the US-backed Jordanian-rebel operations goes much further, it will open the door for the pro-Iranian proxies including Hizballah to move in. They are already standing ready 70km north of Deraa waiting for the ISIS affiliate’s fighters to be cleared out of the way so that they can march in and effortlessly take over this strategic corner up to the Israeli border.
Israel’s leaders were unable to draw the US defense secretary on these questions before he ended his visit Friday. They have mostly themselves to blame. By their policy of abstention from military initiatives on Israel’s northern frontiers, its prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff have made the government non-players in a crisis that vitally affects national security. Unlike Jordan, which took the chance of going into action, Israel was left on the sidelines and therefore kept waiting for answers.