The past few weeks have seen the Islamic State group move from an offensive to a defensive position across Syria and Iraq. The efforts by the international coalition, led by the U.S. and aided by Russia and Iran, are going well, dealing blow after blow to the jihadi group and forcing it to withdraw from some of its strongholds.
This, for example, is how Syrian President Bashar Assad’s militias, supported by Syria and Iran, were able to take back the city of Tadmur, the desert gateway to central Syria, and how Shiite militias, aided by the U.S. and most likely Iran, are now gearing to take back Mosul, Islamic State’s most important center in northern Iraq.
These apparent defeats in Syria have not prevented Islamic State from stepping up its activities in Sinai and the Syrian Golan Heights, two seemingly marginal fronts for the jihadi group, but ones of great importance to Israel.
Islamic State-affiliated media have been reporting on increased Egypt-Israeli collaboration in Sinai geared toward eradicating the group’s presence in the peninsula.
Islamic State has a clear interest in dragging Israel into its struggle against the Egyptian government, which is why it wants to attribute much of the action taken against it by Egypt to Israel, especially the Egyptian Air Force’s strikes on its stronghold in Sinai. This is the first time Egypt’s air force has been allowed to fly across Sinai’s skies since the 1967 Six-Day War, a move most likely sanctioned by Israel.
The bottom line is that, despite the relentless war Egypt has been waging against the jihadi group, Islamic State’s hold on Sinai remains firm, as is its use of the desert peninsula as a base of operations from which devastating terrorist attacks are launched against Egyptian security forces.
Islamic State is gaining ground in the southern part of the Syrian Golan Heights as well. The Syrian regime has long since abandoned this area, as Assad has more urgent priorities if he is to survive the uprising. The Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria is also currently focused on the country’s northern and central areas, leaving the Syrian Golan Heights to the rebels and Islamic State’s proxies, such as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which has been tightening its grip on the area at the expense of the more moderate rebel groups.
This may be a convenient situation for Assad, who does nothing to fight extremists. It seems the Syrian president hopes that the international community, and perhaps even Israel, will conclude that when forced to choose between the two evils that are radical Islam on the one hand and the murderous, secular Assad regime on the other, the latter will prevail.
This means that Islamic State presence near two major Israeli borders is increasing, despite the distress the group is experiencing in other major areas.
Many experts have attributed the recent Islamic State terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Brussels as a show of force by a group trying to exact revenge over its defeats elsewhere. I doubt that was the real reason for the murderous attacks but regardless, these attacks raise concerns that Israel will find itself in Islamic State’s crosshairs, be it from Sinai or the Syrian Golan Heights, sooner rather than later.
Islamic State does not pose a strategic threat to Israel, especially in its current condition, but the setbacks it has suffered will not stop it from carrying out terrorist attacks. The argument that the group would rather focus on its enemies in the Syrian and Egyptian spheres is mostly an empty one, because as we have seen, Islamic State has — contrary to any logic — declared war on Turkey, which until the recent bout of attacks had refrained from targeting it.
The series of attacks across Europe has only fueled the international community’s determination to fight Islamic State, at a time when it needs what can be described as a timeout in Iraq and Syria. For this reason, attempted Islamic State terrorist attacks in Israel are only a matter of time.