Israel's position On Syria unchanged following 'White Helmets' operation

While superficially sensational, analysts highlight Jerusalem's limited role in the mission which they claim did not mark a departure from longstanding policies

Israel evacutes White Helmets from Syria, July 22, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
The Israel Defense Forces participated in a secret overnight operation to relocate some 800 members, relatives and associates of the White Helmets from southern Syria to Jordan. The organization, formally known as the Syrian Civil Defense, is comprised of volunteer first-responders—more than 200 of whom have been killed on the job—that provide urgent medical care and other services to civilians affected by the fighting. The group, which has saved an estimated 115,000 Syrians, was popularized by a 2016 Netflix documentary film that went on to garner an Academy Award.
In a rare candid statement, the IDF confirmed that it had been involved in "a humanitarian effort" at the behest of the United States and European countries. The "out of the ordinary" mission was carried out due to the "immediate risk" posed to the White Helmets by an ongoing regime offensive—backed by Iranian-aligned Shiite troops and under the cover of Russian air power—to retake rebel-held areas in the south.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has long accused the White Helmets, who operate uniquely in opposition strongholds, of supporting anti-government groups and has waged a propaganda campaign against its members.
After passing into Israeli territory, the evacuees arrived by bus at the Jordanian frontier early Sunday morning. Amman previously announced its willingness to temporarily admit the refugees (Jordan already houses about 1.3 million displaced Syrians) until their transit by the end of October—as part of a United Nations-brokered deal—to the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany.
Whereas Sunday's revelation for many Israelis reflexively conjured up memories of past covert humanitarian missions such as Operation Moses, the 1984 airlifting of approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudan during the latter's civil war, according to most security analysts the IDF played only a minimal role in the rescue, which they claim did not constitute a departure from Israel's longstanding positions on Syria.
Yossi Melman, an expert in Israeli security policy at the Jerusalem Report, agrees that Israel's involvement in the operation was "within the lines of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians. Opening the border is not new, as [the IDF] does this occasionally to receive Syrians who need medical treatment. Israel also has been opening the border to distribute aid. This time it was on a larger scale but it is not extraordinary. It was not difficult to coordinate the mission because of the ongoing close security ties between Israel and Jordan.
"It also fits a pattern of the Syrian regime's goal of reaching agreements with those in the south," he expounded to The Media Line. "While most of the locals stay, the rebels or whoever is in danger are usually allowed to be evacuated. The White Helmets are just one example. It is another humanitarian achievement, to the credit of Israel."
Indeed, the Jewish state two years ago launched Operation Good Neighbor, geared towards providing humanitarian support to Syrians. However, Jerusalem repeatedly has made clear that it will not absorb any refugees, a red line again starkly drawn last week when the IDF refused entry to some 200 hundred civilians that converged on the Golan Heights border.
While the IDF would not confirm or deny to The Media Line whether ground forces at any point Sunday crossed into Syrian territory, every security analyst that spoke with The Media Line uniformly agreed that such a prospect was highly unlikely. In fact, the army reiterated in a statement its policy of non-intervention in the war, with the exception, to date, of air strikes to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon, or targeting Iran's ongoing attempt to entrench itself militarily in the country through the construction of permanent military infrastructure.
Dr. Jacques Neriah, formerly the deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence and currently an Arab world expert at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, likewise stressed that "Israel only allowed passage to the White Helmets because direct entry into Jordan was impossible [due to the Assad regime's recapture of the major border crossing earlier this month]. So Israel did no more than act as an umbrella during this intermediary stage, and this only after the Americans asked for it.
"Overall," he conveyed to The Media Line, "the mission illustrates that the Golan Heights has been lost by the rebels. Hopefully for Israel, Assad will go back to respecting the 1974 [Separation of Forces] agreement [that created a demilitarized buffer zone between the two countries]."
To this end, Dr. Neriah believes that Assad is unlikely to respond against Israel in any significant way, not least because this could lead to retaliation that jeopardizes his major gains in the south (which, notably, have come in contravention of a ceasefire agreement that Washington is a party to). Moreover, reports suggest that the Israeli government has de facto recognized Assad's renewed control over the border region. As such, it would make little sense for the regime to lash out at Israel over an operation that does not alter the strategic reality.
Finally, as regards Russia, it is difficult to fathom Moscow not having been privy to details pertaining to the White Helmets rescue mission, especially when considering President Vladimir Putin's meeting in Helsinki with US President Donald Trump; this, only days after aspects of the mission were apparently finalized at a NATO summit.
"The Russians are involved in military operations in Syria and in the aftermath during negotiations with the rebels," Melman related to The Media Line. "So they were definitely aware of it. Russian forces have long been involved in these types of efforts."
Therefore, the IDF's actions are not liable to impact adversely on strategic relations with the Kremlin, ties that are crucial to the Jerusalem's ongoing ability to secure its interests in the north.
While the evacuation of the White Helmets may be a one-off for Israel, it nevertheless shows what can be done when the international community mobilizes towards a common end. The operation might therefore be remembered as a "what-could-have-been" moment, a minor achievement too late in a war in which too many have already been lost.