The dilemma of sponsorship, from southern Lebanon to Daraa and Quneitra
Israel may soon face a dilemma. The “arrangement” with Russia as to the future of Syria may stave-off an Iranian presence but will pose an existential danger to the groups of rebels near the border – groups which have worked closely with the IDF to prevent direct friction with hostile elements on the line of contact. It is vital that the solutions to this challenge demonstrate to future partners that Israel does not turn its back on those who have assisted it facing a common threat.
Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman and Dr. Nir Boms
Defense Minister Lieberman’s latest meeting with his Russian counterpart Shoygu and the Prime Minister’s latest conversation with President Putin have turned an additional spotlight to the issue of the “Arrangement” addressing the withdrawal of foreign forces – Iranian and otherwise – out of Syria, including out of the region of southern Syria and near Israel’s border. As is known, the southern Syrian region has in recent years been characterized as a “strip of influence” where the IDF has been active mainly on the humanitarian level and in coordination with rebel groups on the other side of the border. Alongside the security and strategic considerations guiding Israel toward the anticipated regularization (of the Assad regime’s presence in the southern-Syrian area), it is important to also consider the ethical dimension and Israel’s long-term interest of not appearing to forsake those who have relied on its aid in recent years.
The relevant question is not whether Israel has a formal obligation to assist them. These are informal arrangements formed over the course of years and originating in the immediate needs of residents of the region adjacent to the border. Nevertheless, their fate carries ethical, symbolic and strategic significance. The ramifications of what could happen go beyond the ethical aspect, and could determine the extent to which Israel is perceived – here in its immediate strategic environment, as well as in the international arena – as a country whose commitment can be relied upon.
Moral responsibility can retroactively arise from the consequences of acts or omissions – even if this was not the result desired by Israel. These days, 36 years after the beginning of Operation Peace for Galilee, the events of September 1982 are once again recalled, when the “Lebanese forces”, led by vengeful phalangists, entered the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in western Beirut, where they slaughtered hundreds of people. Many words have been written about the events of the three days between the September 16 and 18, and even after the Kahan Commission’s report, the debate on the question of the direct responsibility to the incident did not end.
But responsibility is not the relevant question. The narrative of those days had been sealed even before the conclusions were submitted. While it is true that it was not Israel’s hand that pulled the trigger, the decisionmakers – who failed to heed the warnings of Military Intelligence Head Yehoshua Sagi – bore the responsibility for a consequence which could have been assumed to arise from the decisions they had made. Sabra and Shatila have been with us ever since. Quneitra might be next.
Eighteen years later, the IDF withdrew from Lebanon – hastily, and some say in an escape that left behind tanks, laden containers and plenty of personal equipment of soldiers. This time, the Good Fence opened its gates to 7,500 South Lebanon Army personnel, but only after they came knocking while Hezbollah’s jeeps were closing in on them. In this case as well, writings on the subject referred to a betrayal by Israel of those who had placed their trust in it – perhaps a rather unjustified description (Israel had done for them a lot more than the French had done to assist their “Harki” loyalists in Algeria in 1962). But again, it is appearances that matter. We could find ourselves in the same dilemma, the difference being that now we have the time to properly prepare.
The trauma of the entanglement in Lebanon has been deeply, and rightfully, imprinted among security chiefs and the “Lebanese Mire” was certainly in the background of every policy session regarding the situation in Syria – especially when that country began disintegrating and when the Irani strategy in Lebanon found a new piece of land in which it could establish its presence. It was not coincidental that Israel has been avoiding far-reaching actions in Syria, such as attempts to topple the Assad regime (which were championed by some in the discourse of the research institutes). According to the principle of “you break it, you buy it”, a process of intervention in Syria could have led to an even more far-reaching and lengthy embroilment.
In this dilemma, as of now, it appears that Israel has made the right choices. Israel has taken in wounded, supplied food, supported medical infrastructure and assisted the Syrian refugee camps that appeared right across the border. For the past five years, Israel has been affecting the lives of many thousands of people. Approximately 7,000 injured and sick Syrians have been treated on Israeli soil, with the medical assistance on the other side of the border reaching much higher numbers. Israeli efforts constructed a hospital and 15 clinics; assisted in the provision of infrastructures for refugee camps; provided baby food, fuel and water. Quite a bit has been done – at least according to foreign reports – in the operations aspect as well.
Keep in mind that this is not a security strip. There is no agreement or penetrating outpost in this case. There is, nor has been, no long-term promise or expectation that Israel would be the one to succeed in overwhelming the struggle in Syria. The Syrian rebels – and their various factions – are not the South Lebanon Army, and do not have in their ranks any Saad Haddad or Antoine Lahad capable of leading them. There are problematic elements among the rebels in the south. However, the guiding principle of the Israeli strip of influence which has been formed is not entirely detached from this comparison. The rebels in the south actually served as a buffer between Israel and pro-Iran militias, on the one hand, and extensions of ISIS on the other hand, with both of these having been active in the Syrian Golan Heights, attempting to establish their influence.
The awareness of the threat from common enemies has provided Israel, for a relatively minor investment, both with tactical advantages in the local level – the repelling of hostile forces from the line of contact – and a plethora of beneficial information regarding all developments on the other side of the border, in a highly complex reality in which traditional intelligence tools are no longer sufficient. Hence the logic of forming the fabric of relationships with elements near the Syrian border, and hence also the commitment to take their adversities into account when preparing for the next moves.
Beyond the moral and humanitarian aspect, the IDF has therefore chosen to cooperate and even manage Operation “Good Neighbor” out of clear awareness that the rebels in the south serve as a buffer between the Israeli border and the Iranian forces and the militias they brought with them. This buffer has successfully survived and filled its function these past years considerably thanks to the Israeli assistance, both the humanitarian and operational one and the political one – the effort, so far with Russian backing, thanks to which Assad’s army has chosen not to send its forces south.
The alternative for this effort is also clear. Late last year, the regime’s forces successfully captured several villages in the region of Beit Jinn, at the foot of the Syrian Hermon. Beit Jinn has served as a northern enclave for the rebel forces and has survived the three-year siege mainly thanks to a supply channel which has been opened to Israel, a channel through which injured were evacuated and doctors on donkeys and mules came in even in the more difficult, snowy days. After the occupation and the achieved “capitulation agreement”, the living residents were put on busses and the pro-Hezbollah Jawlan Militia was brought in in their stead. (is this the correct word?)
This scenario could recur elsewhere in the south as well. The Syrian army is these days preparing for an assault in the south of the country, whose objective is to retake the rebel-held territories. Reinforcements have already been sent to the fronts at the Daraa and Quneitra districts, which border on Jordan and Israel. In one of the videos published from the front, forces from the Fourth Division of the Assad army are seen in the city of Al-Ba’ath, pointing toward Israel and explaining that the time for conquest has come. Other reports show “enlisted militias” who have been given Syrian uniforms and annexed to the military command. Concurrently, a new law concerning land provides that anyone who fails to arrive in person, bearing the documents attesting to their property, to claim the land or property owned by them – will have their land nationalized – which would allow the Syrian government to settle militiamen and other regime loyalists at focal points of the Syrian rebellion. Finally, the number of rebels who have been eliminated in recent months indicate that Hezbollah and its partners have extensive information about the joint activity with Israel – an important message sent by Hezbollah to anyone who now finds themselves defenseless on the line of conflict.
Defense Minister Lieberman’s latest meeting with his Russian counterpart Shoygu and the conversation which followed it between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin did not encourage the Syrian rebels in the southern sector. The agreement – the one not yet signed – or the “series of understandings” between Israel and Russia may perhaps stave off Iran, but would also legitimize forward, southward movement by Assad’s forces. This scenario, in which Syrian solders and Iranian militias gain ground toward those who are perceived both as rebels and as collaborators with Israel, is expected to end in only one way.
Can Israel afford spectating on the massacre of innocent civilians taking place a mere several hundreds of meters from its northern border? Can Israel turn a cold shoulder on the rebel factions who have shed blood almost alone against the Syrian army, Hezbollah and ISIS and have kept them away from Israel’s border? Will we once again go down in history as having let others do the ‘dirty’ work only to eventually forsake our allies?
The answers to these questions could still be negative. Israel may not be able to stem the tide of the assault on the rebel forces in the south. But it would at least be fitting for it to take responsibility and determine the fate of those who have acted on its side and with its assistance. There are ways (even by means of conducting a dialogue through the Russians) of seeing to the welfare of the rebels who consented to work with us in the past five years and to the properties which might be left behind, including clinics, hospitals, rescue teams and orphanage homes. If a “regularization” scenario does indeed come to pass, Israel must see to it that a withdrawal too be carried out in an orderly fashion, including the removal of the equipment and infrastructure and if necessary, also the evacuation of people who might be made an example for collaboration with Israel. The Russian presence in the field could also assist in achieving these arrangements, which could, for example, establish a new alignment nearer to the demilitarized zone (which today includes two Syrian refugee camps just next to Israel’s border) which would leave at least part of the humanitarian infrastructures for action intact. Israel must also prepare for a situation in which Syrian refugees and rebels march on the border fence out of fear for their lives (as was the case with the South Lebanon Army personnel in 2000).
Taking this responsibility is not just a moral decree – it is also a political imperative which would have a considerable effect on a fluctuating Middle East, which is examining Israel’s course of action and slowly breaking through the glass ceilings of relationships. Israel must continue doing the right thing, even if such course of action involves complex difficulties of implementation.
Dr. Nir Boms is a research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, specializing in Syria. Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman is Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.
photo: IDF Spokesperson