Aug 21, 2015 ยท 9 minutes

Something very weird happened on the Syrian/Israeli border today (August 21 2015): Israeli military forces killed Sunni militiamen in Syria.

Israel was responding, as it likes to say, to rockets fired into Israeli territory from Syria, supposedly by its old enemy, PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad).

The rocket attack, like a lot of irregular warfare, was totally meaningless in tactical terms. No one was hurt or killed in Israel. Hardly anyone ever gets hurt by the backyard unguided rockets launched by frustrated Palestinians against Israel’s huge and highly advanced military.

What was much more deadly and interesting was the Israeli response. The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) claim to have killed the launch crew. If that’s true, and it probably is, those casualties are the first Sunni militia members killed by the IDF in the whole long Syrian war.

I’m not saying it’s the first Israeli attack inside Syria. Hell no. Israeli forces have attacked Syrian territory hundreds of times in the past few years. But as I’ve pointed out before, every single one of those attacks targeted either the Alawites’ Syrian Arab Army (SAA) or its real backbone, the borrowed infantry of the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah.

Not once—I repeat, not once—has Israel attacked Sunni militias like Islamic State or Jabhat al Nusra. It’s the weirdest aspect of the whole Syrian war, though you won’t hear much about it from the cowardly US media. As usual, it’s Israel’s domestic press that broke the story on the Israeli military’s de facto alliance with the Sunni “rebels”. Haaretz has been reporting for years that the IDF has been ferrying wounded members of sectarian Sunni militias into Israel so they can be fixed up at IDF hospitals and sent back to behead more civilians.

In all the blood and chaos of Syria over the last four years, there’s been one front that’s stayed completely quiet: The Golan Heights. It’s some kind of Satanic miracle, this “All Quiet on the Golan Front” peaceable kingdom on the very slopes where Arab and Israeli armies blasted each other for so many years. On one side, you have the IDF, which has never hesitated to strike over the border at any threat it saw or imagined; over on the Syrian side, you’ve got some of the most bloodthirsty sectarian militias in the world, men who’ve spent most of their lives dreaming about cutting Jewish (and Shi’ite, and Christian, and gay, and whatever) throats…and it’s been as quiet and dull as a poetry reading.

If you look at a control map of southwestern Syria (from the excellent Agathocle de Syracuse site), you can see that Islamic State, hands down the worst, most savage sectarian Sunni militia in Syria, controls a squib of turf right below the IDF artillery on the Golan. And not once has there been the least hint of rudeness between these two somewhat pugnacious organizations. Odd, eh?

Not once did those crazy jihadis fire at the IDF troops holding the heights above them. Not once did the IDF gunners, who are not shy about spending rounds, succumb to the temptation to drop a few on the Islamists on the flat below. Why, you’d think there was some sort of secret alliance going on!

Both sides have good reason to keep the focus on killing Shi’ites and Alawites. Both sides line up on the Sunni side of the Arab street, in the big Sunni-Shia sectarian split that’s causing the magma to bubble even hotter on the Middle Eastern Fault. On the Israeli side there’s an even grimmer military calculation involved: the IDF fears Hezbollah, which defeated it in 2006, whereas it has nothing but contempt for all Sunni military organizations, conventional or irregular.

But if the Sunni militias facing the Golan have managed to keep the peace with Israel for so long, who fired those pathetic, useless rockets into Israel yesterday? The answer isn’t entirely clear.

Israel’s version is simple: the rockets were fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), one of the oldest, most uncompromising Palestinian militias.

PIJ is a determined, serious militia with a long list of attacks (not very successful, most of them) on Israeli targets. But they deny any involvement in this rocket attack,

Islamic Jihad denied involvement in Thursday's rocket salvo and said those killed in Friday's air strike were not its own.

‘These are all lies ... Islamic Jihad has no armed presence outside of Palestine,’ group spokesman Dawoud Shehab said, referring to Israel, the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

...and though you can never take an irregular force’s denials very seriously, this one rings true—for the simple reason that  PIJ has never been known to conduct military operations on Syrian soil.

They’re an interesting, tragic organization, worth writing about when I get around to it, but the key fact for present purposes is that they only operate in the West Bank and Gaza. PIJ doesn’t control any territory in Syria, and wartime Syria is not the sort of place where you can just drive around in your Hyundai Tucson full of homemade rockets, looking for a good launch site, asking the bearded men at the nearest checkpoint, “Hey, is it OK if we set up our tubes here where there’s a nice view of that IDF observation post?” Sunni militias tend to be a little protective of their turf, to the point of downright rudeness.

If you refer back to that control map of SW Syria, you’ll see that the zone near the Golan is held by a shifty alphabet soup of Sunni militias, with Jabhat al Nusra (JaN), Israel’s closest secret ally in Syria, dominating the rest. It’s not likely JaN would have allowed PIJ to borrow its hard-won turf, risking its very handy secret alliance with Israel, just to launch a few pitiful symbol-rockets over the border.

So who launched those rockets? It’s possible this was a freelance, “lone wolf” (God, I hate that term!) operation by a few angry Palestinian refugees. SW Syria is home—if you call a miserable tent camp “home”—to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. One of the biggest, oldest, nastiest of these camps is near Daraa, very close to Golan.

Palestinians in the camp have been bombarded by nearly every faction in the war. Their lives were bad enough before, and they’ve become intolerable since the war began. It’s not hard to imagine that some of them might want to send a rocket at Israel even if they knew it wouldn’t do any good. But again, I just can’t see any of the local militias letting them do it. It’d be like agreeing to take your nerdiest friend for a paintball drive-by on the local Mexican Mafia HQ. Just not a smart idea. The IDF has had a policy of massive retaliation against any threat, no matter how pathetic, for a long time.

You might imagine that the Sunni militias themselves would hate Israel so much they’d do it on general principles. Certainly if you hang out with Sunni Arabs for any length of time, it’s “Israel did this, Israel did that” nonstop. But one grim lesson of the Syrian war is how easily all that noise about driving the Zionist Entity into oblivion turned in about a half-second into hatred for your fellow Arabs from the other sect, or just the other neighborhood. Like I said, it’s been all quiet on the Golan Front—and you don’t hear any complaints from the fire-eaters in Islamic State about that. They hate their fellow Muslims much more than they hate Israel.

In fact, the Sunni have joined Israel—funny how that keeps happening—in blaming Iran for this attack. Yup, Iran. The NYT dutifully repeated the official Israeli line:  

Israel blamed Iran for what appeared to be the most serious flare-up in the area in months.

Of course, Iran is the “leading Shi’ite power” in the Middle East, and guess how many Shia Palestinians there are? Uh, none. Palestinians are 93% Sunni, 6% Christian, and 1% “Other.” (You can get that from the CIA World Factbook but you’ll have to work for it because naturally those pension-collecting cowards can’t admit that there is such a place as “Palestine” or such a people as “Palestinians.”)

And yet it is true that PIJ, the official suspects in this attack, do get funding from Iran. Yep, a Sunni Islamist group that gets its money from the leading Shia regional power. The reason for that is complex, if you want to go through the details, but pretty depressingly simple in the short version. It’s because betrayal is the norm among Sunni Arab groups, to such an extent that PIJ ended up expelled by Egypt and kept barely alive in Damascus, as a sort of side bet, by Assad’s Alawite regime.

There are rumors—maybe Mossad products, maybe true—that PIJ has recently been cut off by Iran because they refused to condemn the Saudis for bombing Yemen’s Shia “rebels.”

After that break, the Assad/Iran alliance has supposedly started backing a PIJ splinter group. A lot of these stories are lies, the kind cops tell suspects to get them to turn on each other.

It’s a murky incident and likely to stay that way. The official story, that the PIJ did it, is nonsense, but it may be that a few pissed-off Palestinians who once belonged to the PIJ got up on a hill and fired off those fireworks in commemoration of being the third generation of refugee misery to look up at Golan in frustrated rage. Or it could have been a freelance squad from one of the Sunni militias who’ve been making nice with the IDF. Maybe some of the rookie recruits didn’t get the memo about the secret alliance with Israel.

In military terms, it doesn’t matter who really launched those useless tubes. No matter who did it, the IDF was going to inflict a massive retaliation on the only Muslims it really fears, really takes seriously: Iran, Assad, Hezbollah—the Shia Axis.

NOTE: I just launched a new subscription podcast, Radio War Nerd, for fellow war nerd civvies who’ve been kindly asking me how they can help support the War Nerd Movement. Here’s the Radio War Nerd podcast page, and our first show. Big thanks to all the comrades who’ve already pitched in. More coming, here on Pando and at Radio War Nerd...