As the Sinai Goes, so Too the Golan Heights?

The new status quo in the Middle East is one of porous borders, growing radicalization and the fragmentation of once stable nation-states

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Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Israeli Meir Elakry looks toward Syria at an army outpost in the Golan Heights on July 23, 2012

The overnight air strikes by the Egyptian military against rebels based on Egyptian territory in Sinai on Wednesday would have alarmed Israeli security chieftains, confirming that Cairo has lost control of the desert territory over which the two countries fought three wars and is now mounting a full-blown military campaign to reassert its authority. Egypt’s military — which operates independently of its elected civilian government — was spurred to action after border posts were targeted in a series of attacks on Sunday and Tuesday by what are believed to be jihadist groups looking to stage attacks on Israel. The same organizations are also attempting to undermine the authority of the Egyptian military, the fledgling government of President Mohamed Morsy — a longtime Muslim Brotherhood leader — and the Hamas administration that runs the adjacent Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

(MORE: What’s Behind the Unrest in Egypt’s Rogue Province?)

But this is hardly the only flash point in a region in flux. The spectacle of nonstate actors exploiting the fraying of state authority to assert their own agendas would have given the guardians of Israel’s security even more cause for alarm over events unfolding on their northern frontier, where the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad is losing control over vast swaths of territory, creating operating space for all manner of independent actors, including jihadists of various stripes.

The latest Sinai confrontation began on Sunday with a dramatic raid on an Egyptian-army border post that left 16 soldiers dead. The attackers stole an armored personnel carrier and crashed through the border into Israel before being killed in an Israeli air strike. They were later found to have been wearing suicide bombers’ explosive vests, signaling an intent to spread mayhem on the Israeli side of the border. Walking back on an initial claim by its U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren, that Iran had been behind the attack, the Israeli military blamed al-Qaeda. Egypt’s military appeared to reach a similar conclusion, but said the attackers were based both in Sinai and the Palestinian territory of Gaza, where the control of Hamas is being challenged by al-Qaeda-inspired militants, among others. Hamas and its allies in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood furiously condemned the attack, but in a throwback to the paranoid style of the Mubarak era, blamed it on the Israelis themselves, claiming a dark plot to sow discord between Cairo and Gaza.

The discrepancy between those statements obviously reflects competing political agendas. But it’s certainly clear that the attacks were intended to further strain the already fragile relationship between Israel and the Egyptian military, disrupt the nascent post-Mubarak domestic political order in Egypt, provoke confrontation with Israel and challenge the authority of Hamas in Gaza, where there have been recent moves to ease Israel’s six-year siege and blockade of the territory. After Sunday’s raid, the Egyptian military began closing the smuggling tunnels that have been Gaza’s economic lifeline.

Sinai’s Bedouin population has complained of decades of neglect by the Egyptian state, making it an economically depressed zone in which smuggling and criminality has thrived — as well as a more permissive environment for small jihadist groups. But the February 2011 uprising that dispatched Mubarak also saw a dramatic weakening of state authority in Sinai, and local militants have for months conducted a low-key insurgency that has included targeting gas pipelines and other facilities, and occasional cross-border attacks on Israel.

Although the latest attacks have sparked widespread outrage in Egypt and a groundswell of support for the military, it remains to be seen whether a military show of force, including air strikes on villages said to be bases of rebels, will eliminate or exacerbate the problem. Nor will tightening the blockade on Gaza strengthen Hamas’ ability to enforce its security edicts on rival organizations.

Despite the political discord in Cairo and the poor security situation in Sinai, Israel is aware of the tacit consensus between Egypt’s military and its elected government on the need to keep and enforce the peace with Israel. However effective or otherwise efforts may be, the Israelis are confident that Cairo is committed to restoring its authority in Sinai. But the security challenge Israel will soon face on its northern frontier, however, is altogether more daunting.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Bloody, Slow-Motion Civil War)

In Syria, the authority of the state itself has collapsed over vast swaths of territory, particularly along the borders as the regime concentrates its forces to battle rebels in the main cities. And the circumstances in the Kurdish region of northeastern Syria demonstrates how effectively nonstate actors with independent agendas have been able to exploit that situation. Syrian Kurdish groups, acting entirely independently of both the regime and the rebellion but assisted by their kin in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish province, have created militias that have taken direct control over their own turf, staking out a future autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria — much to the alarm of Turkey. Of course, Israel has nothing to fear from Kurdish self-determination in Syria, but developments in Kurdish Syria underscore the fundamental rupture in the architecture of state power that has kept a hostile but stable peace with Israel for four decades. And the Kurds are not the only nonstate actor with an agenda independent of the mainstream Syrian opposition, given the growing reports of the emergence on the battlefield of various al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups.

Syria’s borders with Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq have become increasingly porous — Sunni insurgents and jihadists once encouraged by the Assad regime to cross into Iraq from Syria are now crossing the other way, as are jihadists from Lebanon; Free Syrian Army fighters are crossing from Turkey into Syria; and PKK Kurdish separatists may be crossing the other way. Israel has good reason to be nervous about what to expect on the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory it has occupied since 1967. Israeli military-intelligence chief Major General Aviv Kochavi last month told the Knesset that unnamed “global jihad” groups (Israeli code for al-Qaeda) had begun operating on the Syrian side of the Golan, from which the Assad regime had pulled thousands of troops for deployment against the rebellion. “The Golan area is liable to become an arena of operations against Israel in much the same way the Sinai is today, and that’s a result of the increasing entrenchment of global jihad in Syria,” Kochavi told a Knesset committee, according to the Associated Press.

Unlike the Sinai, which was returned to Egypt in 1980 under the Camp David peace agreement, the Golan Heights remain under occupation, and a more representative government that replaced Assad would, if anything, be even more insistent on securing their return to Syrian control. The Syrian National Council, the mainstream exile opposition group backed by the West, has made clear its commitment to seek the return of the Golan through negotiations with Israel. But the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly indicated that it has no intention of returning the Golan to Syria. The combination of the fraying of state authority as a result of the rebellion, and the broad legitimacy in Syrian society enjoyed by any effort to reclaim this contested territory, will likely create a more permissive environment for more radical elements to take root once the battles to dislodge Assad’s regime are over.

Indeed, as Assad’s power crumbles, the Israeli leadership may well find itself quietly experiencing an improbable nostalgia for its intractable — yet entirely predictable and effectively tame — foe in Damascus.

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