My Word: On borders and boundaries and the Syrian front

So there Assad is, very much back in business, and, I’m afraid it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next along Israel’s northern border.

Syrian forces of President Bashar Assad are seen on al-Haara hill in Quneitra area, Syria July 17, 2018 (photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Syrian forces of President Bashar Assad are seen on al-Haara hill in Quneitra area, Syria July 17, 2018
It’s much easier to say “I told you so” than admit you were wrong. And if you admit making a mistake, it is probably better not to add a sentence that starts with “But....”
But erring and trying to explain why are both natural, human traits. So here goes: I pride myself that in 1996 I predicted, to much derision, that Benjamin Netanyahu could beat Shimon Peres; I foresaw that in 2009 even though Kadima, then headed by Tzipi Livni, won more mandates than Netanyahu’s Likud party, Livni would be unable to create a coalition. (This week she was again appointed official head of the opposition to replace Isaac Herzog as he leaves to head the Jewish Agency.) I warned liberal friends in the US that Hillary Clinton should not prepare her victory speech ahead of the official results as Donald Trump might surprise her and them (“shock” would have been a better word); I turned down bets that Britain wouldn’t vote for Brexit, saying it could be close; I even warned that the Oslo Accords would not bring peace. Pride, they say, comes before a fall and a few years ago I proudly predicted the downfall of Syrian President Bashar Assad. I was wrong. But....
I shouldn’t be the one apologizing for the fact that the Butcher from Damascus is bouncing back. Although I did see that former US president Barack Obama’s foreign policy was creating a disaster of global proportions, I didn’t realize the extent to which Russia and Iran would be willing to jump into the vacuum.
So there Assad is, very much back in business, and, I’m afraid it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next along Israel’s northern border. I can’t guess with enough certainty to want to commit it to print.
I once heard an IDF intelligence officer mourn the passing of an age when he could go to sleep at night and be fairly sure that the following morning forces beyond the Syrian border would be in the same place as he last saw them through his binoculars.
This week, even though the southern border remained smoldering hot and an IDF soldier was killed by a Gazan sharpshooter on July 20 and one wounded on July 25, Israeli eyes turned North. The border with Syria threatened to turn into a front, especially after missiles launched by the Syrian Arab Army against rebels on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights seemed to be set to land on the Israeli side and the IAF was forced to down a Syrian jet. The plane was heading for Israel at great speed and the pilot ignored calls in four languages – reportedly including Russian and Farsi – to turn back. On July 25, there were reports of two rockets landing in Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) without causing any injuries.
Along both the border with Syria and that with Gaza, Israel has to make it clear that the question of boundaries is not a rhetorical one.
The biggest surprise of the week was not Israel’s role in rescuing hundreds of so-called White Helmets and their families from Syria, where they were trapped between Assad’s forces and ISIS. That was, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted, “a humanitarian gesture.” The members of the Syrian Civil Defense, as the White Helmets are more correctly called, were transferred via Israel to Jordan, from where they have been promised safe passage as refugees to various Western countries. Members of the NGO, who bravely dug through the remnants of bombed buildings to save those trapped under the rubble, did not publicly acknowledge or thank the Jewish State for its part in their safe evacuation but Federica Mogherini, foreign affairs envoy of the European Union, uncharacteristically managed to praise Israel. The Italian politician usually finds it easier to bury the country than praise it. I doubt an apology would find its way to her lips.
SOME PUNDITS quipped that they had expected the situation in Syria to heat up as soon as the FIFA World Cup in Russia was over. (Decades ago, soldiers serving with me on my northern base noted that Lebanon usually remained quiet during major football and basketball games involving Russia.) Although Assad is retaking areas from jihadists even more brutal than he is – the Islamic State slaughtered more than 100 people in Druze-majority Sweida on July 25 – the rules of the game have changed. Israel cannot afford to ignore the presence of Iranian forces and affiliates there. Hence Netanyahu’s frequent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and this week, again, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. War and diplomacy are fickle things, however. Russia now seems no more interested in a serious Iranian foothold in Syria than Israel is.
Israel has carefully tried to avoid being drawn into the Syrian conflagration. But it isn’t easy. One stray rocket fired by the rebels or a Syrian Army missile, drone or plane that lands in Israel instead of hitting back at the anti-Assad forces and everything could literally go up in smoke. And the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force stationed there is unable to do anything other than observe and report. In 2014, UNDOF peacekeepers were kidnapped by al-Qaeda affiliates when they took over the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and Israel had to help in the rescue operation.
UNDOF was established in May 1974 under UN Security Council Resolution 350, mandated to maintain the cease-fire and disengagement between Israel and Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It’s easy to belittle the capability of the unarmed peacekeepers, but Israel is definitely interested in preserving the buffer zone that they oversee. And it has been made clear to Assad that should his forces step over the line, Israel will retaliate. That was the reasoning behind the IDF knocking out the Syrian plane this week.
Although he is desperate to bring the rebels in the villages close to the border to their knees, it is unlikely that Assad wants to get pulled into a fight with the far superior Israeli forces. In fact, the border between Israel and Syria under the Assad family dictators has basically remained calm since 1973, although they have actively allowed Iranian arms to pass through to be used by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
It is likely that when Assad’s army returns to the area, Operation Good Neighbor, which has provided people the other side of the fence with huge amounts of humanitarian aid and enabled some 5,000 wounded Syrians to receive medical treatment in Israeli hospitals, will either come to an end or morph into a different kind of cooperation. As we saw with the White Helmets, recipients of Israeli aid might be too scared to admit it out loud, but beyond the humanitarian aspect, Israel is hoping that those it has helped will not forget it and will pay Israel back by preventing attacks from their homes and villages.
When Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week said that the newly passed Nation-State Law shows “Hitler’s spirit has re-emerged among administrators in Israel,” I almost laughed. Coming from a dictator who clearly models his rule on dreams of reviving the old Ottoman Empire and brutally subdues opposition, especially among the Kurdish minority, “chutzpah” was the first word that jumped to mind. Erdogan is no guardian of human rights.
More than 500,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war there in 2011 and millions displaced. Among those now under direct threat are the Kurds in northeastern Syria. I had hoped that the disintegration of the Arab states would lead to the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. Following the failure of the referendum in the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq last year, that now seems unlikely. But it’s one of those cases in which I’d be happy to be proved wrong.
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