US and Israeli buffer zones under Syrian rebel control designed to contain al Qaeda advances
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report January 28, 2014, 7:17 PM (GMT+02:00)
The Obama administration announced Tuesday, Jan. 28, that selected Syrian rebel militias would receive American light weapons including anti-tank – but not anti-air – rockets. And Friday, Jan. 24, an Israeli intelligence officer disclosed that his government was “rethinking” its neutrality policy in the Syrian war owing to the massing of 30,000 al Qaeda fighters on its Syrian border.
debkafile’s intelligence and counter-terror sources say these disclosures add up to a strong shift in the US and Israeli governments’ non-intervention policies on the Syria conflict. That shift appears already to be evolving into joint action for a limited military venture on Syrian soil – not by the deployment of their own troops, but through Syrian rebel militias unassociated with radical Islamist organizations.
These rebels are already taking delivery of American and Jordanian arms and training, and receiving logistical, medical and possibly intelligence assistance from Israel.
Mostly local militias, they are assigned with manning two security buffer zones taking shape in southern Syria and warding off attempts by al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) to reach Jordanian and Israeli borders.
The main thrust of this American plan is to create security zones for sealing those borders against both Bashar Assad’s army and the various Islamist militias including al Qaeda, by means of local anti-Islamist rebel groups provided with arms, funding and logistical aid allotted respectively by the US, Israeli and Jordan.
Israel for instance will carry on proffering medical aid and evacuating injured Syrians from the south – its most conspicuous form of support.
The plan has taken around 10 months to mature, starting from the deployment of 15,000 US special forces troops at the King Hussein Air Base at Mafraq in April 2013. The incoming units set about converting parts of the base into facilities for Jordanian military instructors to drill Syrian rebel fighters, before sending them back to Syria equipped with American weapons.
Two security sectors are taking form in South Syria.
One enclave, 45 km long and 75 km wide in the south west, is wedged between the Jordanian and Israeli borders. (See attached map).
The difficulty is its situation on the edge of Druze country, where 180,000 tribesmen living in 120 scattered villages, have taken care to stay out of the Syrian civil conflict and held back from acting against the Assad regime - thus far. But initial Al Qaeda encroachments on their territory may have persuaded Druze leaders to get off the fence.
If they do decide to throw in their lot with the US-backed rebels controlling this buffer zone, the enclave will acquire strategic depth and this part of southern Syria would grow into a powerful military entity capable of standing up to Assad’s and al Qaeda forces alike.
The second enclave is being rolled out further north (see map), to eventually give Syrian rebel militias control of a 30-km wide strip running the 60-km length of the Syrian-Israeli Golan border which, including Quneitra, has a population of around 300,000.
Eventually, US planners expect to connect the two buffer zones as a safe haven and stronghold in southern Syria for moderate Syrian opposition elements, safeguarded by US, Israel and Jordanian military support.