Tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syrian offensive

As the Syrian regime keeps up its bombardment of rebels in the south there are concerns that the refugees and spillover from the fighting will pressure Israel to intervene.

Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria (photo credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS)
Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria
Thousands of Syrian refugees have begun to crowd near Israel’s Golan Heights border in the Syrian town of Rafid near the historic cease-fire line between Syria and Israel. As the Syrian regime keeps up its bombardment of rebels in the south there are concerns that the refugees and spillover from the fighting will pressure Israel to intervene.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert who did extensive research on the border area and is familiar with relations between Israel and the Syrian rebels, presents several scenarios as the crisis unfolds.
“I think the Syrian military operation will grow and a deal will be struck... Some [rebels will be] deported to the north... others will stay and some who stay may become enforcers for the Syrian government,” says Tamimi, a Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
The Syrian regime has been pounding rebel positions and overrunning villages and towns in southern Syria for a week. An estimated 45,000 people have fled, with as many as 5,000 or more fleeing toward the Israeli border, seeking shelter in an area they know the regime is loathe to bomb.
The Russian air force has also been active in southern Syria, claiming to be targeting extremist groups that are not party to a cease-fire it signed with Jordan and the US last July. With US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled to meet in July, the crisis in southern Syria could throw a wrench into discussions between their two countries. For Israel, the central concern is keeping Iranian-backed militias away from the Golan and managing the crisis.
“It is still early... and there is a sense that the Jordanians may pressure the rebels into negotiations,” says Tamimi. In other places in Syria the regime has signed reconciliation deals with local rebels and left them to run their own affairs even after the government reasserted control. This “soft” deal could be in store for the small rebel groups on Israel’s border.
However, another option is that the factions surrender and then end up being paid to be part of the regime’s government structures, such as military intelligence. A third, “harsher” deal would envision the rebels being deported and their supporters being shipped north to Idlib province, which is still controlled by rebels.
The problem for the villages near the Golan is that some are run by a single group – such as Fursan al-Jawlan, the “Knights of the Golan” – while other areas might have numerous rebel groups, including more extreme factions among them. “If there is a multiplicity of factions there could be problems with law and order,” Tamimi says. The more extreme groups such as the ISIS-affiliate Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid in the southern Golan will want to fight the regime, and Damascus will not want to reconcile with them. Instead they could be bused to the eastern desert where the regime has sent other ISIS members.
The rebels’ fate on the Golan is likely sealed, Tamimi argues. After the US made it clear they would not intervene, it is only a matter of time until they are defeated. “The outcome is predetermined and the rebels and their cause will lose one way or another.”
Russia has provided crucial support for Damascus in its drive to reconquer the country since 2015. The regime and Russia have sought deescalation agreements, like they had in the south, until they were ready to retake them. Through these salami tactics they have focused on defeating first one group and then another.
“Some in the US thought that Russia was interested in deescalation for its own sake rather than the actual goal, which is bringing back the government to the south,” Tamimi says. “They thought this agreement would hold due to Trump’s relations with Putin, but you see how Russia does these deals to game the system and advance the interests of their main ally.”
For those closest to Israel the expert predicts that some might try to cross over, but that Israel will not open the border. “I think the regime will be careful there near the border. If they bomb an area and a bomb or missile or mortar shell goes into Israeli territory accidentally then Israel will respond and hold the Syrian government responsible.”
Some of the rebels have been accused of working with Israel but Tamimi says that Syrian leader Bashar Assad has put on a magnanimous face, appearing ready to reconcile. He points to the example in Beit Jann near the Hermon where the former rebel commander had been in touch with Israel and was allowed to remain after the regime returned. He even gets a government salary today.
Some of the Syrians in the south, after seven years of war, are also ready to go back to regime control. The question is what the rebels think will happen. “They do talk a lot about the Iranian militias targeting them and they play that up because whether it is true or not, they want someone to intervene and say this is crossing a redline.”
The reality is that the Iranian-backed militias are more concentrated in the Euphrates Valley in Syria, not near the Golan, he says. However, there are elements of Hezbollah located in an area several kilometers from the Golan called the “triangle of death.” Hezbollah, like the Iranians, likely knows that if they approach the border, Israel may respond.