After a week of battles between Syrian rebels and the regime just kilometers from Israel’s Golan border, things seem to have returned to relative quiet. A cease-fire in southern Syria was announced on July 3. That leaves a stalemate, with the regime and its Iranian-backed allies kept away from the border by the rebels, which is exactly the way Israel’s policy wants it.
The details of Israel’s relations with Syrian rebels have always remained relatively opaque, with rumors and guesswork taken as fact. Now a report by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at IDC Herzliya and a Fellow at Middle East Forum, titled “Israel’s relations with the Syrian rebels: An assessment,” clarifies many details. It debunks some myths and provides color to many shadowy events.
The ISIS incident is one of these. In April 2017 news media in Israel and abroad were abuzz with a story that Islamic State affiliates in Syria near the southern Golan “apologized” to Israel after a clash in November 2016.
“I think this claim they apologized to Israel is nonsense,” says Tamimi. “It’s a garbling of what took place.”
The garbling wasn’t helped by former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who had sparked the story in April by characterizing it as an apology without elaborating.
In November 2016 a unit of the Army of Khalid bin al-Walid, which is affiliated with ISIS, clashed with Israel.
“It was a small unit responding to a perceived infringement by Israel on Jaish Khaled [ISIS]’s territory. This doesn’t mean ISIS apologized. They had this clash and Israel took out the unit in an air strike, and I heard claims they [the local ISIS leadership] were angry about the incident, they felt they had risked triggering too much of an Israeli response,” Tamimi says in an interview.
He asserts that the ISIS affiliate is engaged in a war with other Syrian rebels and “cannot afford to fight on another front against a power with vastly superior military assets.”
Israel also has no interest in sparking a war on the Golan, because destroying ISIS on the Golan would require invading Syrian territory, “a politically unviable option,” Tamimi writes in his report.
The ISIS controversy is like many other stories of pragmatism and power politics. Since Syrians began fighting the Bashar Assad regime in 2011, a multiplicity of rebel groups have become part of the kaleidoscope on the Golan border. That means rocket and mortar fire often spill over, as they did in late June, and Israel responds. It means wounded come to the border, and Israel must find a way to maintain relations with whoever is on the other side.
Tamimi says that besides the Syrian regime and its allies, Israel faces four types of Syrian groups on the Golan.
First are those that come under the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army rebels. “These are vetted groups that get support from the Operations Room in Amman in Jordan. It’s backed by Jordan, the Gulf states and the West, including the United States.”
The second group is local rebels who are independent of the Southern Front but are non-Islamist. “I profiled the Fursan al-Jawlan, the ‘Knights of the Golan’; it’s independent.”
The Knights of the Golan group is located in the pastoral village of Jubata al-Khashab, which is a few kilometers from Israeli Route 98 and the Druse village of Bukata.
Tamimi’s article quotes a source as saying the group has 340 members. This is symbolic of the reality of the Syrian civil war. Most politics is local. The conflict is often seen through the lens of large blots of ISIS or Syrian rebels on a map, while many villages actually have their own politics and local groups that have affiliated with one side or another, but who still operate only on a local level. Relations with each group and keeping the Golan border area quiet, which is Israel’s goal and the goal of local civilians, means acknowledging this localized pragmatism.
The third force along the Golan is the Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which used to be known as the Nusra Front and was originally al-Qaida in Syria.
Tamimi notes that Nusra “gets the most polemical attention because of claims Israel supports Nusra.”
This narrative appeals to agendas that would like a simple story about Israel working with jihadists against the Syrian regime. But the real story, according to Tamimi, who lived on the Israeli side of the Golan for a year and a half and has spoken with numerous sources in most groups along the border and meticulously reads Arabic sources about them, is more sedate and complex.
“There is no evidence Israel gives aid to Nusra,” Tamimi says. “Some individual fighters might get treatment, but there is no evidence that Israel actively supplies them with aid and cash the way they give aid to Fursan al-Jawlan.”
Nusra is also much weaker than it was three years ago, because Jordan gives aid only to other groups.
The last group Israel faces is ISIS.
One source Tamimi quotes said that Israel provides medical and humanitarian aid to Fursan al-Jawlan. Diesel fuel was given to work water pumps so the local cattle could drink.
“We’ve been besieged for six years and no one offered us a hand of help in anything. The wounded were dying in front of us,” Abu Muhammad told Tamimi. His group doesn’t see Israel as a friend or ally, but came for assistance out of necessity.
Although the front line between the regime and the rebels on the Golan has remained relatively static for years, the regime wants to take back the area, aided by its Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias.
Tamimi says that the regime doesn’t always flatten towns it recaptures, but finds local solutions he describes as “reconciliation.” For instance, “they don’t force all rebels to disband.” They might recruit them to a local pro-government militia affiliated with the National Defense Forces. He says the regime has tried this method along the Golan, and groups like the Knights of the Golan reject it.
Another discovery Tamimi made is that the idea that Israel uses Syrian rebels as a “buffer zone” on the Golan is also a complex issue. “There wasn’t enough attention paid to Khader [a Druse village in Syria] and Druse sentiments [in Israel], and what Israel wants.” He says that if Israel really wanted a buffer against Hezbollah, it would have let Syrian rebels take Khader in 2015 when they tried. But he characterizes Khader as a “redline, that it shouldn’t fall to the rebels, in deference to the Druse.”
In June 2015 an Israeli ambulance carrying a wounded Syrian was attacked in the Druse town of Majdal Shams and the Syrian man was beaten to death. Druse accused the ambulances of transporting wounded Syrian rebels who were involved in attacking Khader. So Israel tolerates the presence of hostile forces very close to the border, because dislodging them would hurt the Druse and create social tensions in Israel.
The concern for Israel is that one day the stalemate on the Golan will change. Tamimi says that it’s likely a hostile group, such as ISIS or Iranian-backed militias, will “try to test the waters with Israel, through harassment. It could happen if they decide that the rebels can’t defeat them, but they can’t expand. [They will say,] ‘Let’s harass Israel.’” That could lead to conflict.
When the situation ends, if the rebels are defeated, will refugees pour over the border, fleeing the regime? Tamimi thinks the situation isn’t like Lebanon in the 1980s. “Israel isn’t trying to influence the character of Syria.”
He also says that many people don’t understand that the Syrian rebels don’t like Israel; they see Israel as a lesser evil, compared to the regime. “They would never say they are a friend of Israel.”