'Israel doesn’t take sides in Syria', warns expert at 'Post' interview

Supporting the current Israeli policy ALMA CEO Sarit Zehavi warns in favor of patience.

Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks overlooking the border between Israel and Syria (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks overlooking the border between Israel and Syria
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Following intensive fighting at Hader on Friday, on the Syrian-held section of Mount Hermon, which resulted in dozens of casualties, the IDF said it is willing to provide assistance and prevent the capture of the Druse village by anti-regime forces.
Israel has succeeded in confronting a complex dilemma on the Golan Heights as fighting in Syria continues to take place near the border, says Sarit Zehavi, the founder and CEO of ALMA, an organization specializing in research and analysis of Israel’s security challenges on the northern border.
On Friday, two bombings next to the Druse village of Hader, located on the Syrian- held side of Mount Hermon, killed a total of nine and wounded two dozen.
These are the first bombings of this size to strike the villagers and it caused alarm among Druse in Israel. An Israeli citizen from Majdal Shams, the largest of the four Druse towns on the Israeli side of the Golan, was wounded by “spillover fire” from the fighting.
“First and foremost we should relate to what the IDF spokesman said,” says Zehavi, who is a lieutenant- colonel in the IDF reserves. The IDF said it “is ready and prepared to assist the residents of the village and will prevent the harming or the conquering of the village of Hader due to our deep commitment to the Druse population.” This statement reflects a desire to deter Syrian rebels and jihadist groups from harming the Druse in Syria near the Golan. Zehavi says it is important to wait and see if the fighting that flared up on Friday will end in the next day or so. “I see there were actually two deadly attacks that happened near the village, which means Israel will provide assistance to victims but may not be required to do anything beyond that.”
The battles near the village are part of an attempt by Syrian rebels and affiliated groups to link up with rebels in Mazra’at Beit Jann, a Syrian village surrounded by regime forces near Hader. The rebels successfully sought to break through to the Beit Jann pocket by moving next to Hader.
“They [the rebels] are being attacked by Assad’s forces in the Bayt Jinn enclave,” Zehavi says.
She says that the current situation “proves Israel is rescuing human lives and it doesn’t matter if they are Shia or Sunni [or Druse].” She points out that Hader has residents who support Hezbollah, and because of the Assad regime’s presence there are also contacts with Iranian forces in Syria.
The statement by Israel “reflects an unwillingness of Israel to take sides in this conflict. So we were blamed in the past for helping rebels, and now [with this] bold announcement [that] we will help a Druse village [which has] sided with the Assad regime, no one can say we help one side or another,” says Zehavi.
“The incident reflects the complicated dilemma Israel is facing since the civil war began [in 2011]. On the one hand, we want to defend our Druse allies in Israel and on the Golan, and they have family in Syria, and [on the other], we don’t want to be involved in the war itself.”
This is not the first time the complex situation over the border led to Israel balancing its actions with the Druse and the rebels in Syria. In 2015, a Syrian man being transported by ambulance in Israel was lynched in Majdal Shams by Druse residents who said he was a rebel fighter.
Israel has succeeded in keeping the border stable, but not quiet, she notes. “The reality is changing rapidly because pressure on the rebels is rising and the Russians and Iranians are involved.”
The rebels have hung onto a small sliver of territory that runs along the Syrian side of the Golan, but over the years the Assad regime has strengthened its presence. In July, a cease-fire deal was reached between the US, Jordan and Russia, and Russian monitors have been keeping a close eye on the truce zone established near the Golan.
According to reports, Israel has asked that any Iranian-related forces be kept at least 60 km. from the border, but they have come much closer.
Zehavi says there are two key questions about what happens next. “In my assessment, Israel will prefer to help these Druse in Hader in a low profile way and not [conduct] high profile attacks [against the rebels].
And [the second question is], what will the Assad regime do? Where is the Assad regime, I didn’t see any statements from the Assad regime about what is going on.”