Can the rehabilitation of southern Syria keep Iran away?

Almost immediately after the outbreak of war in Syria, the Turkish government advocated the formation of safe zones.

WHAT IS next for southern Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS)
WHAT IS next for southern Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Tensions over Iran’s presence in Syria intensified in recent days, following the American-Russian announcement of the finalization of a cease-fire agreement for southern Syria.
In Israel, the agreement was met with much disappointment, mainly because the Iranians and the Iranian-led militias will be kept only a few miles from the Israeli border.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman declared that Israel will not accept Iranian presence in Syria, and will act in accordance with its security needs. Cabinet ministers were more explicit, saying – according to reports in Kan – that only military action will secure Israel’s interests.
But is this what Israel’s “tool kit” for this complex issue comes down to? Diplomacy or military action? In the modern era, when the Internet and social media are creating human interactions that are somewhat dissolving strict national borders – in this era there must be a third way.
If we look a little to the north, toward the Aleppo and Idlib governorates in Syria, we see how Turkey is forging this third way for itself, by itself.
Almost immediately after the outbreak of war in Syria, the Turkish government advocated the formation of safe zones in northern Syria, both as a measure to deal with the refugee crisis and to distance itself from threatening elements such as the Syrian regime, the radical Sunnis and most of all the Kurds.
After failing repeatedly to push the international community – and mainly the US – to bring about the creation of safe zones, Ankara started working by itself to secure its interests. It did so via a combination of public diplomacy, civil and military aid, rehabilitation of vital infrastructure, and yes, military action as well.
Just last month as the school year started in Syria, children of the rebel-held regions of Idlib and Aleppo went for the first time to newly built or renovated schools funded by the Turkish government and NGOs. In the opening ceremonies, “Free Syria” flags were hung next to those of Turkey; signs welcomed guests in both Arabic and Turkish, and greeting remarks were also made in both languages.
Should the schoolchildren or their parents fall ill, they will drive to Turkish-funded clinics, on roads built with asphalt and machinery provided by Turkey.
Should they drive too fast, they will be fined by policemen of the Free Syrian Army riding motorcycles made in Turkey.
That being the case, as the war in Syria is entering a formative stage with the establishment of de-escalation zones and the nearing defeat of the Islamic State, it is apparent that foreign actors including Turkey, the US and Iran are no longer limiting themselves to strictly military actions.
Through rehabilitation efforts of war-torn areas in Syria, they seek to create security and stability to serve also their own interests.
While the uncompromising stance Israel is taking with regard to the vast Iranian presence in Syria is important and has its own realistic justifications, it would be wise to start promoting the rehabilitation of southern Syria as one of the means to keep Iran away from Israeli and Jordanian borders.
Assuming that one of the main fears in Israel is from the formation of a powerful “Syrian Hezbollah” along the Syrian front, the local Sunni population residing in the Syrian Golan could play a key role in thwarting this plan. With its strong motivation and the patience of those who are fighting for their homes, the locals also have better chances of success than Israel has with military strikes or a broader military campaign, as history teaches us.
A meaningful support of the local community, with stabilization and rehabilitation on its entire social, economic, political and military aspects, could lay the foundations for better neighborly ties and a stronger, more viable resistance to Iranian presence.
Those who would argue that this policy is not free of risks; that there are no guarantees this approach will provide security or that the money and resources will not be turned against us in the future, would be right. Having said that, and knowing that our only current alternative is the use of military force, which could easily escalate into conflict with the Shi’ite axis, it is at least worth trying.
The author is a student in the research program of the International Relations Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.