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Israel's Oil Grab In Syria: How 'Islamist' Rebels Helped Engineer It

Illustration adapted from Mark Rain.
Illustration adapted from Mark Rain.
By Nafeez Ahmed
A US oil company is preparing to drill for oil in the Golan Heights.

Granted the license in February 2013 by Israel, Afek Oil and Gas is a subsidiary of Genie Energy Ltd, whose equity-holding board members include former US Vice President Dick Cheney, controversial media mogul Rupert Murdoch and financier Lord Jacob Rothschild. Also on the board is Brigadier General Effie Eitam, a former Israeli minister for infrastructure who currently resides in the Golan Heights himself.

Afek, which has exclusive rights to a 153-square-mile radius in the south of the Golan Heights, started “dirt works” in December 2014, to prepare the first site for drilling.
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Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War, annexing and occupying the territory in 1981 in violation of international law. As the conflict in Syria has escalated, the spillover into the Golan has invited Israel to label its de facto control over the territory as another security issue requiring military “defense.”

Accordingly, Israel has considered unilaterally creating a new buffer zone that would extend up to 10 miles inside Syrian territory on the pretext of securing the border from Islamist fighters.

Israel and the Islamists

The role of a prominent US energy company in the Golan Heights demonstrates that the Netanyahu administration has Obama’s unwavering backing in its effort to expand Israel’s energy footprint into Syria.

Yet there is considerable evidence that the burgeoning threat from Islamist militants in the Golan Heights is a direct consequence of Israel’s covert sponsorship of anti-Assad rebels in the region.

Last year, reports submitted by UN observers in the Golan Heights to the UN Security Council revealed a disturbing pattern of “cooperation between Israel and Syrian opposition figures” over a period of 18 months. The extensive reports confirmed that the Israeli army was assisting wounded Syrian rebels, and providing military assistance, from around March 2013 to summer 2014.

“Observers remarked in the report distributed on June 10 [2013] that they identified Israeli soldiers on the Israeli side handing over two boxes to armed Syrian opposition members on the Syrian side,” reported Ha’aretz.

Anti-Assad rebels receiving treatment and aid from the Israeli army included members of extremist al-Qaeda faction, al-Nusra Front, as well as the Islamic State (IS), according to a statement issued by Israeli Druze activists.

Yet during this period, the Syrian side of the Golan Heights was increasingly dominated by Islamist militants affiliated to al-Qaeda and IS.

The UN observer reports also revealed that the Israeli army was allowing Syrian rebels inside Israel. Last December, on his widely-read blog Tikun Olam, Israeli national security journalist Richard Silverstein cited Hebrew news reports showing that the Israeli army had established “a Camp Ashraf-style Syrian rebel encampment just inside Israeli territory on the border”. Israel’s plan, Silverstein surmised, is to “escalate its intervention by permitting rebels to operate openly inside Israel and engaging in cross-border sabotage-terror operations”. By creating “maximum instability inside Syria,” Israel hopes to weaken not just Assad, but also Iran and Hezbollah.

Silverstein’s reports of Israeli military assistance to anti-Assad rebels have been corroborated elsewhere. In August 2013, the French daily Le Figaro reported that an influx of 300 “hand-picked” Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels trained and directed by CIA and Israeli commandos was en route from the Jordanian border to the Syrian capital, Damascus. The joint US-Israeli military training in anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons had been taking place since 2012 at secret US-run camps in Jordan and Turkey.

Land for war

In March last year, Ha'aretz reported that prominent Syrian rebel leaders were “willing to give up claims to the Golan Heights in return for cash and Israeli military aid against President Bashar Assad”. Kamal al-Labwani, a top rebel leader, said, “Why shouldn’t we be able to sell the Golan Heights because it is better than losing Syria and Golan at once.”

The deal appears to have been struck. By August 2014, the Times of Israel reported that a FSA commander had “collaborated with Israel in return for medical and military support.” He had entered Israel five times to meet Israeli army officers, during which time he was provided with an Israeli mobile phone, medical support and clothing, 30 Soviet rifles, 10 RPG launchers with 47 rockets, and 48,000 5.56 millimeter bullets.

The following month, al-Labwani turned up in Israel on a 10-day tour. Despite giving lip-service to the cause of Syrian moderates, he criticised the war on IS: “Four thousand people have been killed by IS and 400,000 by the regime – who is the bigger terrorist? For me IS is only a small problem, but the Syrian government is a much bigger problem.” Although al-Labwani and others have been sidelined in the new covert assistance programme to the rebels, their thinking seems to reflect US-Israeli strategy.

In the same month, Israeli journalist Ehud Ya’ari, who once assisted Shlomo Gazit as coordinator of government activities in the Territories, reported the existence of an “undeclared truce” between Israel and al-Qaeda factions in Syria, whose “cadres prefer loose, ad hoc cooperation with other rebel factions, including those with ties to Israel.” Consequently, Ya’ari affirms that Israel will not attempt to “disrupt military strength” of al-Qaeda affiliates for now. “Some rebel groups maintain constant contact with the IDF, including frequent secret meetings reportedly held in Tiberias,” Ya’ari added, emphasizing that they are, however, the "moderate" variety. He admitted that Israel has supplied them “a modest amount of weapons,” including “rocket-propelled grenade launchers”.

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