Last week, outgoing chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces Benny Gantz told an American audience that it’s important the international community defeat both camps of regional extremists. The way Gantz sees it, on one side there are Sunni radicals, like the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate. On the Shiite side are Iran and the Revolutionary Guards expeditionary unit, the Quds Force, as well as Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias.
In urging European, Arab, and, of course, American officials to band together to defeat Middle Eastern extremism of all varieties, Gantz was nominally tapping into a consensus position. After all, the White House convened a summit last week to “combat violent extremism,” so surely the United States and its allies can agree that all types of radical violent actors—Shiite or Sunni, secular or otherwise—are equally bad.
The reality, however, is that the government Gantz recently served has made clear distinctions between extremist groups in the Middle East, and has backed its preferences on the ground for certain actors in the Sunni camp. The Obama White House has also signaled its priorities, acquiescing to, if not actively supporting, the Iranian-backed Shiite axis. Thus the United States and its longtime ally Israel have reached yet another point of strategic divergence over Iran, one that may soon widen.
The January 18 Israeli strike on a three-vehicle convoy in the Golan Heights carrying six Hezbollah fighters, a senior officer of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and as many as five other Iranian officials was the clearest indication yet of Jerusalem’s top priority—Iran. It’s possible that the IRGC/Hezbollah delegation was plotting an attack that Israeli officials deemed urgent. But the key point the strike showed is that Jerusalem will not allow Iran to open up a second front on the borders of Israel from the Golan, in addition to its Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon.
The evidence that the Israelis have no such immediate concerns regarding the Sunni rebels fighting against the Assad regime is that this was the first time Israel targeted the region around Quneitra, Syrian territory that the rebels have controlled for a year. Presumably, for the present at least, the Israelis have turned a blind eye to rebel activities—even though those units surely include fighters from Nusra, one of the groups that Gantz says should be defeated.
“Israel has been reportedly working with rebel brigades in southern Syria for a while,” says Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Israel has provided medical treatment not just to Syrian civilians but also fighters. It’s a channel of communication, then, they’re talking to them, and likely sharing intelligence, in the full knowledge that these rebel units cooperate with Nusra against the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and the IRGC.”
The issue, as Badran notes, is that Israel perceives the Iranian axis not just as the strategic threat, but also as the immediate threat. There may come a day that the anti-Assad rebels, especially Nusra, will be a serious problem for Israel, but at present Jerusalem’s chief concern isn’t nonstate Sunni militants with rocket-propelled grenades, but a state sponsor of violent extremism that is seeking a nuclear weapon. Moreover, as the regional press has reported, the IRGC campaign to retake Quneitra, with Iranian officers not simply advising Assad’s forces and its Hezbollah allies but actually fighting, is apt to force a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran for the first time. It’s hardly surprising then that Jerusalem sees a vital interest in keeping IRGC troops off its border, even if that involves coordination with rebel groups that include Nusra forces.
The Obama administration has a different set of regional priorities. First is to cut a deal with Tehran over its nuclear weapons program. Second is to prevent a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland, with a watchful eye especially on the foreign fighters in the Syrian war who may be dispatched to an American city to conduct a Charlie Hebdo-style operation.
Both of these goals have brought the administration into alignment with Tehran. The White House believes that if it accommodates Iranian interests, from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq to Yemen, then Iran will be more willing to forsake, or at least postpone, its nuclear ambitions. As for the second, the administration believes that Iran shares an interest in halting the spread of Sunni jihadism. Accordingly, the White House has partnered with Iran and its allies in Iraq to fight ISIS, shared intelligence with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and promised Iran not to attack Assad’s dwindling forces in Syria.