Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to Moscow in September 2015 for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. With Russia increasing its involvement in Syria, particularly with warplanes aiding the Bashar Assad regime that year, Jerusalem was concerned that there could be a misunderstanding. As a result, Israel and Russia “agreed on a mechanism to prevent such misunderstandings,” including any accidental conflict in the air over Syria.
Rebels surrender as the Syrian army advances, June 30, 2018 (Reuters)
Years later, as the Russian air force and the Syrian regime lay siege to Syrian rebels in southern Syria near the Golan border, the deconfliction mechanism is of utmost importance. It is both Netanyahu’s greatest achievement during the years of chaos in Syria, and will be Jerusalem’s great challenge in the weeks ahead.
Netanyahu, in power since 2009, has presided over Israel’s reactions to the Arab Spring. The Syrian civil war became the longest lasting conflict resulting from the protests of 2011 that swept Arab regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia from power. Israel was concerned about the chaos unfolding. Only Assad held onto power. He did so with Iranian and Russian support.
For Israel, the main threat in Syria in the last several years has been Iran’s penetration of the country, including the construction of permanent military bases and training of thousands of Shi’ite militiamen. To confront the Iranian threat and weapons transfers to Iran, Israel has waged a shadow war that has been reported in the foreign press. In August 2017, Israel Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel said Israel had carried out 100 air strikes over five years in Syria.
The air strikes are only one part of Israel’s policy. Netanyahu has also used rhetoric to warn the international community about the issue of Iran’s sophisticated weapons transfer to Hezbollah. Jerusalem has been concerned about other extremist groups in Syria such as the Nusra Front, which was affiliated with al-Qaeda and is now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. In 2015, Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly that “Hezbollah smuggled into Lebanon SA-22 missiles to down our planes and Yakhont cruise missiles to sink our ships.”
Israel strikes a Syrian SA22 during Israeli airstrikes in Syria on May 10, 2018 (Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
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Israel also confronted a complex puzzle in what to do on the Golan Heights as fighting from the war spilled over the border. Once the Syrian regime began to melt away, a variety of rebel groups occupied not only villages but also the ceasefire line that UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is supposed to be observing. In August 2014, 43 Fijian members of the UNDOF were kidnapped by the rebels while 40 Filipinos fled to Israel.
“WHICH REBELS and which weapons?” Netanyahu asked the BBC’s Lyse Doucet in 2013, in response to a question about Jerusalem’s concerns about its new neighbors. “The main areas of concern to us are the arms that are already in Syria,” he told her, pointing to the chemical weapons and anti-aircraft weapons of the regime. As ISIS looted Syrian regime depots in the Euphrates River Valley, such as the airbase at Tabqa, it began acquiring dangerous weapons that could be transferred to other groups.
As for Assad, he was the devil Israel knew. Michael Oren, however, told The Jerusalem Post
in September 2013: “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” In May 2013, CIA chief John Brennan flew to Israel to urge Israel not to go at it alone in Syria. Netanyahu was cautious anyway, and Israel watched in 2013 as the US decided not to bomb Syria despite the regime crossing the chemical weapons redline. “We are concerned that they may not have declared all of their capacity. But what has been removed has been removed. We’re talking about 90% [of the chemical weapons].”
Israel’s greatest achievement was to come to a cautious understanding with the small rebel groups in the Golan. It worked quietly with them as revealed in foreign reports, and transferred humanitarian aid over while taking in wounded. In 2014, Netanyahu visited an IDF field hospital aiding Syrians. This is where the good of the world is separated from evil, he said. It “saves lives from the daily slaughter taking place in Syria. This is the true face of Israel.”
By March 2018, more than 5,000 Syrians had been treated in Israel and, according to a Globes
report, thousands had been treated in Syria through other arrangements that have not been made fully public. This was Operation Good Neighbor, which succeeded spectacularly.
The IDF sends aid to Syrians fleeing Daraa in overnight `Good Neighbor` operation (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
However, Jerusalem had to navigate a different controversy with the medical aid. Some of those being treated were accused of being members of rebel groups attacking a Druse village called Khader on the Syrian side of the border. Khader borders Majdal Shams and the Golan Druse were outraged at attacks on co-religionists in Syria.
In the summer of 2015, two wounded Syrians were dragged from an IDF ambulance by Druse and one of them was beaten to death. The government understood that working with the rebels also could harm the Druse in Syria who tended to support the regime. When Khader was attacked again in November 2017, Israel vowed to intervene in Syria to protect the village if need be.
Throughout the conflict, Israel was accused of conspiring with all sides. Rebels wondered if they were being used by Israel as a buffer. The regime accused Israel of supporting ISIS and al-Qaeda. Others claimed Israel secretly believed the regime brought stability.
Netanyahu navigated all these concerns, including calls early on to intervene, to topple Assad, to take over southern Syria and create a Druse state, to let in tens of thousands of refugees; eschewed major policy changes in favor of managing the conflict and working quietly. The conservative estimates paid off. There has been no real spillover from Syria.
As the conflict winds down and thousands of displaced Syrians come to Israel’s border seeking protection and help, the good neighbor policy could turn bad. Israel doesn’t want refugees crossing the border, but it has been helping these Syrians for years. It doesn’t want spillover from the war or rebels using the cease-fire line to hide in while fighting the regime nearby.
At the same time, Netanyahu has warned that the Syrian regime must remove Iran entirely from the country. Jerusalem wants Washington and Moscow to pressure Damascus. But a victorious Assad will not want to be seen as bending the knee. The US has indicated it won’t help the Syrian rebels in the south near Jordan and Israel. The stronger Assad feels as his southern blitzkrieg rolls on, the less he will listen to Jerusalem.
For seven years, Netanyahu managed the Syrian crisis like a master strategist. Managing the regime’s push towards the border and thousands of refugees will be a major test. The Syrian case is not like Gaza, where Israel’s Hamas enemy engineered the mass violent border protests. For now, the refugees look to Israel for protection and some see Israel positively. But they face a pressure cooker on the border with Assad on one side, the Russian air force above and Israel on the other. Managing that pressure is now Jerusalem’s major concern.