ISIS doesn’t threaten Israel today, but it could in the future

Yonah Jeremy Bob

The impact on Israeli security of the civil war in Syria that’s been raging since 2011, even with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) involved, has so far been neutral to net-positive.

The carnage in Syria has been horrifying, but from a purely Israeli perspective, the intensity of the civil war has meant that since 2011, both Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters into the mix on Assad’s side, have had their hands full with ISIS.

Practically speaking, this has meant not only that their attention has been diverted from making trouble for Israel, but that even the theoretical ability of Syrian government forces to threaten Israel has been significantly depleted.

For the time being, this has also been true for ISIS and other Syrian rebel groups, who themselves have had their hands full fighting Assad’s forces and Hezbollah.

Moreover, as ISIS has experienced success and a growing international following, its first moves to expand beyond Syria and Iraq have been into other Muslim states with vacuums or that are immediately nearby, such as Libya (where it is strongest), Turkey, Jordan and Yemen.

Rocket fire aside, Israel has not faced a serious invasion threat in nearly 40 years, but that could change in the long term because of ISIS, which is already by far the most powerful terrorist entity in history, far exceeding Al Qaeda even in its prime. 

As things currently stand, the Al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), both much smaller and weaker than ISIS, control certain border areas with Israel on the deep southwest Syrian side of the Golan Heights, but ISIS’ mostly northern and eastern Syrian territory has no access to the Golan, nor is it even close by. 

If ISIS ever regains the upper hand in Syria, it could use the Syrian Golan border to attempt a large-scale invasion of northern Israel, which others have long been incapable of, or have been deterred from attempting, based on rational strategic thinking, which ISIS may lack.

ISIS has also shown tremendous capability to inspire new followers and currently poses real dangers beyond Syria and Iraq in Turkey, Libya (and through Libya, possibly even Italy and portions of southern Europe), the Egyptian Sinai and Jordan.

If ISIS gets an extended foothold in Sinai or parts of Jordan, these currently quiet frontiers could also suddenly become borders with invasion threats. 

Then there are the dangers closer to home. 

Israel has already disrupted one West Bank cell that claimed to be connected to ISIS, though it’s hard to say if it had a real connection or if its members were ISIS-wannabes (though these can be as dangerous.)

Several Israeli Arabs have been arrested and indicted over the last year for signing up with Syrian jihadis, including ISIS.

Israel has not indicted any of them with carrying out or being close to carrying out terror attacks. Their crimes have been related to “contact with a foreign terror group.”

But the reason they are being indicted at all stems from the very real concern that the trend of radicalized Israeli Arabs joining ISIS initially to fight Assad and then turning their sights on Israel could balloon out of control.

Since the end of the second intifadah in 2004, despite some spikes (including in recent months), there has been no widespread suicide bombing or other terror threat.

ISIS will probably be pushed back by western and allied Arab airstrikes in the future, as opposed to expanding. And even in the unlikely scenario that it gained a border with Israel, the IDF is a far superior force compared to others ISIS has fought up until now, and it would likely swiftly repel any invasion threat.

Yet even as ISIS’ short-term impact has made the northern border quiet, as a long-term threat, it introduces a more dangerous and unpredictable variable than Israel has faced in some time. 

Yonah Jeremy Bob is a foreign affairs lecturer and correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.