In Syria: How Israel Overtly—And Covertly—Protects Its ‘Red Lines’
Jerusalem is using a dual-track method consisting of military action and humanitarian relief in a bid to secure its interests
If statements were ever to be taken with a grain of salt, those proffered over the weekend by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem would be a prime candidate. In a speech to the UN General Assembly, he singled out Israel—”the usurper entity”—for backing anti-Assad regime forces in the six-and-a-half-years-long war.
“Unlimited Israeli support to terrorists in Syria doesn’t come as a surprise [as] the two [have] the same goals and interests,” asserted Moualem, who represents the same Syrian government which has used chemical weapons against its own citizens and is primarily responsible for the killing of some 400,000 people during the conflict.
Despite the dubious nature of the messenger, however, the Syrian envoy’s allegation that Israel has provided funds and communications support to Sunni rebels may have some validity.
In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that Jerusalem regularly supplied anti-Assad groups operating along the shared northern border with fuel, food and cash—with which to pay fighters and purchase weapons. There have also been claims of wounded rebels being treated in Israel.
Then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon seemingly confirmed as much in 2015, revealing that Israel has “assisted them [rebels] under two conditions—that they don’t get too close to the border, and that they don’t touch the Druze [a minority Muslim sect that numbers in the thousands in both the Syrian and Israeli Golan Heights].”
When contacted by The Media Line, neither the Israeli Defense Ministry nor the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit were able to provide a statement in this regard prior to this article’s publication.
Israel is clearly committed to upholding its red lines in Syria, which includes prevention of the establishment of a permanent Iranian military presence in the Golan, which would allow Tehran and its proxies to open up another front against the Jewish state during future hostilities. Israel has repeatedly conducted missile strikes in Syria to prevent the transfer of “game-changing” weaponry to Hizbullah as it arrives by air and then travels overland to the Lebanon-based terrorists.
Speaking to The Media Line, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said he was unaware of any such coordination with Syrian rebel groups and stressed that “those operating in the Syrian Golan [which at intervals has included offshoots of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda] are not supportive of Israel.”
As such, he views Moualem’s comments foremost as a justification for Syrian and Iranian-backed military operations near the border.
By contrast, Eiland explained that Israeli military intervention in Syria is prompted by three intersecting circumstances; first, a response to errant fire that enters its territory by targeting Assad regime assets; second, when Hizbullah offensives are identified along the border; and third, if there is an attempt to transfer advanced weapons—precision missiles, in particular—to Iran’s Lebanese Shiite underling.
In this respect, the IDF last week reportedly for a second time this year attacked an arms depot next to Damascus International Airport; this, following a purported Israeli strike on the Scientific Studies and Researchers Center in the central Syrian city of Masyaf, where chemical arms were allegedly being manufactured in contravention to a previous U.S.-Russia-brokered deal to completely rid the Syrian regime of WMDs.
According to Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, who commanded IDF troops along the Syrian border, while Israel’s direct involvement on the ground is restricted, its overriding goal is to ensure “stability and security along the frontier, [thereby avoiding] the creation of another area from which a war of attrition [can be initiated].
“Israel may not be able to stop this,” he acknowledged to The Media Line, “but can nevertheless influence the process. Jerusalem must emphasize that it is part of the game and that it is willing to take risks to achieve its objectives. Moreover, the Israelis need to make clear that any solution in Syria must take into account its considerations.”
As regards Israel’s strategy, Hacohen, currently a fellow at The Began-Sadat Center For Strategic Studies, believes that it is “context-dependent” and will thus continue to evolve in accordance with changing circumstances, based on consultations with regional partners and the degree to which Jerusalem’s demands are respected moving forward.
In fact, the apparent uptick in strikes in Syria reinforces Israel’s determination to be heard (not coincidentally, earlier this year Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government for the first time openly admitted to military action there) and serves as a message to both U.S. President Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who together recently forged a cease-fire agreement in southern Syria which Jerusalem rejected over concerns the deal does not adequately address the Iranian threat.
It likewise sends a stark message to Tehran, which this week test-fired a ballistic missile that can reach Israel and reportedly be outfitted with nuclear warheads; and which has upped its anti-American rhetoric ahead of the upcoming deadline for Trump to recertify whether the Islamic Republic is in compliance with the nuclear accord signed with world powers in 2015.
In the wake of Thursday’s strike in Damascus, therefore, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman reiterated that Israel “will do everything in order to prevent [the formation of] a Shi’ite corridor,” referring to the development of a contiguous land bridge under Iranian control spanning Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea and passing through Syria and Lebanon.
It is a precarious situation playing out in a volatile setting, where one wrong move can ensnare Israel in a brutal and complex conflict that includes Russia.
Though Jerusalem closely coordinates with Moscow, Israel’s ambassador was recently summoned in protest of a supposed strike in Syria that nearly hit Russian troops. Russia’s envoy to the UN subsequently suggested that Putin would no longer grant the IDF freedom of action in Syrian airspace, a revelation Netanyahu immediately denied and rejected.
More recently, the Israeli premier, on a trip to Moscow, reportedly sought from Putin guarantees for the formation of a 42 mile buffer zone along the northern border that would be free of pro-Assad forces. The Russian leader is said to have countered with only a 6 mile offer.
According to Eiland, “Israel’s ultimate goal is not to see any Iranian presence in Syria, because it is understood very well than Tehran will try to build Hizbullah 2.0. But the most sensitive area is close to the border.” Nevertheless, he stressed to The Media Line, “Israel cannot achieve this by itself—it needs Russian support and Putin has not been very enthusiastic to give promises.
“The only effective solution,” he continued, “is some kind of American-Russian agreement, and given that Washington is not holding the cards, this will require some concessions, such as the de facto recognition of Moscow’s presence in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the cancelation of U.S. sanctions levied against Russia. In return, Putin would be more willing to consider reducing the Iranian footprint in Syria.
“Unfortunately,” Eiland concluded, “it is unknown whether the Americans are willing or even capable of this, but theoretically it is something that is possible.”
In the interim, with the prospect of parts of the Syrian Golan being overtaken by adversaries, Israel has assumed a three-pronged approach that includes military action (and allegedly providing narrow assistance to Sunni rebels) to protect its long-term interests; using diplomacy to press its positions to foreign leaders; and, lastly, directing a humanitarian effort geared towards winning over the hearts of minds of Syrians along the border, who when the war ultimately concludes will likely find themselves living under the bootstrap of either Iranian-backed Shiite groups like Hezbollah or anti-Assad Sunni rebel fighters—”the lesser of two evils” from Israel’s vantage point—neither of which will likely have much respect for the “legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
To this end, Israel has over the course of the war provided medical care to thousands of wounded civilians and last year launched “Operation Good Neighbor,” which has transferred hundreds of tons of aid to some 200,000 Syrians in villages close to the Israeli border. “This project has a significant impact on Israel’s security,” affirmed IDF Brig.-Gen. Yaniv Ashur, who is in involved in the project, before qualifying that Jerusalem has “learned from the Americans who lost the Iraqi population.”
Israel thus appears to be covering all of its bases, acting dually with might and compassion with the aim of creating military deterrence against its foes while affecting a populace that may eventually be inclined to view the Jewish state as a partner; which could, in effect, mitigate the dangers posed by the increasing probability the border region comes under the control of Jerusalem’s sworn enemies.