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Israel in the Syrian Civil War
Seeking quiet and peaceful northern borders.
By Joseph Puder
On a recent visit to the Golan Heights, this reporter described the border area stretching from Majdal Shams through Quneitra as “quiet and peaceful.” A clear reason for the relatively quiet border is that the forces behind the border line with Israel are those of the Syrian rebel group called The Nights of the Golan or their Arabic name, Fursan al-Joulan. With a buffer zone manned by fighters of Fursan al-Joulan, Israel is able to keep away its mortal enemy, Iran and its terrorist arm, Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as Iraqi Shiite militias also doing Iran’s bidding. Naturally, it includes the Assad regime forces.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on June 19, 2017 that “Israel Gives Cash and Aid to Rebels in Syria.” This headline is somewhat misleading since Israel is not inside Syria, but simply creating a buffer zone next to its border. According to the WSJ, “Israel has in the past acknowledged treating some 3,000 Syrians, many of them fighters, in its hospitals since 2013, as well as providing humanitarian aid such as food and clothing during winter. But interviews with half a dozen rebels and three people familiar with Israel’s thinking reveal that the country’s involvement is much deeper and more coordinated than previously known, and entails direct funding of the opposition fighters near its border for years.”
Moatasem al-Golani, spokesman for Fursan al-Joulan, told the WSJ “Israel stood by our side in a heroic way, we wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.” According to al-Golani, the group (Fursan al-Joulan) gets roughly $5,000 a month from Israel. The group is not linked to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and doesn’t get Western funding or arms.
The WSJ article quoted Ehud Ya’ari, a fellow at the Washington Institute and an Israeli political analyst, saying “Israel has dubbed the current Golan operation ‘The Good Neighborhood’ policy.” He maintained that the policy of supporting Syrian opposition militias began under Lieberman’s predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon and has since continued.
The WSJ story is rehashing an old story that appeared in Times of Israel on June 29, 2015, stating, “Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Monday that Israel has been providing aid to Syrian rebels, thus keeping the Druze in Syria out of immediate danger. Israeli officials have previously balked at confirming, on the record, that the country has been helping forces fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.”
Ya’alon pointed out that Israel assisted the rebel group under two conditions. “That they don’t get too close to the border, and that they don’t touch the Druze.” This means that Israel expects the rebel group to keep Islamic extremist groups like IS and al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, away from the border. Ya’alon articulated Israel’s policy regarding the civil war in Syria as “we are not getting involved.” He stressed however, that there were certain red lines under which Israel would act, such as the smuggling of so-called game-changing weapons to Israel’s enemies, i.e. Hezbollah.
Israel’s concerns are focused primarily on preventing Iran and its proxies from gaining access to the border with Israel. Israel additionally seeks to prevent Hezbollah from getting anti-aircraft, chemical and other lethal weapons via Syria and into Lebanon. The Jerusalem Post cited a report by Reuters on January 30, 2013 that suggested Israel “targeted a truckload of weapons, going from Syria to Lebanon.” A diplomat added that the cache was not chemical weapons but probably included high-tech anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.
The Qatari based Aljazeera reported on March 17, 2017 that “Israel carried out air strikes inside Syria.” Aljazeera added, “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the strikes targeted ‘advanced’ weapons bound for Hezbollah, the Lebanese (terrorist) group that fought a war with Israel in 2006 and is now fighting alongside the Syrian government.”
The Associated Press (AP) stated on April 27, 2017 that “Syria’s military said Israel struck a military installation southwest of Damascus International Airport before dawn on Thursday (April 27), setting off a series of explosions and raising tensions between the two neighbors. Apparently seeking to interrupt weapons transfers to the Hezbollah group in Lebanon, Israel has struck in Syria with increasing frequency in recent weeks, making the war-torn country a proxy theater for Israel’s wider war with Iran.” The AP report failed to mention, however, Iran’s direct involvement in the civil-war in Syria. Iran and its Shiite proxies, including various Iraqi Shiite militias, an Afghani Shiite group, Houti Shiites from Yemen, and of course Hezbollah, have all been recruited by Iran’s Islamic Republic to fight on behalf of Tehran’s agenda.
Israel has targeted arms being sent to Hezbollah from Iran in commercial and military cargo aircraft. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson said that one of its Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries intercepted a target over the Golan Heights, which the Israeli media described as an unmanned drone. It was the second time that the IDF downed a Syrian drone.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman held talks in Moscow (April 26, 2017) with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lieberman reiterated that Israel will not allow Iranian and Hezbollah forces to be amassed on Israel’s Golan Heights border. Lieberman was in Moscow to coordinate with Russia Israeli actions in Syria and on ways to avoid the risk of Israeli-Russian confrontation. He also expressed to the Russians Israel’s concerns over Iranian activities in Syria, and Iran’s use of Syrian soil for arms smuggling to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In the Syrian civil war there are several actors. On the side of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, there is the Islamic Republic of Iran with its Shiite proxies and Russia. This grouping seeks to keep Assad in power and eliminate the opposition to his dictatorial regime, which has killed about 500,000 people, mostly civilians. Iran hopes that it can control its client, Assad, and thus establish the Shiite crescent that covers Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea and the border with Israel. Russia wants to demonstrate that it still is a super-power with a major influence in the region. Besides, the Syrian regimes dependence on Russia means that the Russians have full control of the air and naval bases in Latakia and Tartus.
Turkey and its dictator, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was ostensibly against the Assad regime that killed fellow Sunnis, has soon enough focused his military and propaganda machine on fighting the Syrian Kurds, whom he calls ‘terrorists.’ These so-called ‘terrorists’ are the U.S. and coalition forces best partners, and the most fierce and effective fighters against the IS, which the U.S. is trying to destroy. The Trump administration, unlike the previous U.S. administration, is more forceful toward the Syrian-Iranian camp. The Saudis and the Arab Gulf states are part of the U.S. coalition. Their agenda is more intent on removing Assad, countering the spread of Iranian influence and its mischief in the region, and taking out IS.
Israel simply wants “quiet and peaceful” northern borders, and thus having a “buffer zone” on its Golan Heights border, manned by friendly forces, is a logical policy that has worked so far. Although U.S. and Saudi interests largely coincide with Israel’s, Jerusalem however, has had more limited involvement in the Syrian civil war.