The combined assault by the Assad regime and the Russian air force are gradually pushing the rebels out of southern Syria and causing tens of thousands of refugees to flee toward the borders of neighboring Jordan and Israel. At the same time, the assault presents Israel with a new test: how to maintain the red lines it has set for its defense without being dragged into direct conflict with the Syrian regime.
And no less important – how do to this without clashing with Russia, with which Israel has greatly strengthened ties over the past few months and regards as an ally in fulfilling its key goal, distancing Iran and the Shi’ite militias from the border on the Golan Heights.
At the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defined Israel’s goals in light of the Syrian army’s progress in the south. Israel, he said, would continue to protect its borders, provide as much humanitarian assistance as it can to refugees arriving near the border (but would not let them enter the country) and would demand strict adherence to the 1974 post-Yom Kippur War separation of forces agreement.
Netanyahu added that he was in constant touch with the White House and the Kremlin on these matters. At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces said it was beefing up its presence in the Golan in light of the developments. Additional armored and artillery units have been deployed along the border. In southern Syria itself, the regime is advancing. So far, the Syrian army and its militia allies have not encountered particularly staunch resistance. Thousands of refugees continue to flee, while the inhabitants of villages that have been surrounded by the regime’s forces have had to sign surrenders and declare anew their loyalty to President Bashar Assad.
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'Diplomatic endgame' approaching
Meanwhile, on Friday, the Washington Post described the outlines of understandings now emerging in Syria, which are quite similar to those described in Haaretz in recent weeks. According to columnist David Ignatius, the civil war is approaching its “diplomatic endgame” and an American-Russian-Israeli deal is shaping up, whereby the Assad regime will take back control of the Syrian side of the border with Israel in the Golan, following his assault on the Daraa area, near the border with Jordan.
Israel, Ignatius writes, will agree to this in exchange for a Russian pledge to keep Iran and the Shi’ite militias at least 80 kilometers from the border (Israeli sources had previously spoken of a line 60 or 70 kilometers from the border, while Netanyahu has publicly demanded that Iran be removed entirely from Syria). Russia, for its part, will continue to turn a blind eye to Israeli attacks on Iranian military targets deep inside Syria.
According to Ignatius, both Israel and the Trump administration are focusing on one issue alone in Syria: stopping Iran, and that for all intents and purposes it has come to terms with renewed control by the murderous Assad regime throughout Syria. Ignatius reports that the United States will completely withdraw its demand to bring down the regime, but will continue to maintain the Tanf base in Eastern Syria, to impede passage of forces and weapons from Iran to Damascus. Russian military police will patrol the areas the regime takes over in southern Syria. The border crossing between Jordan and Syria will be opened to allow Jordanian trucks to head northward, which Amman needs to aid its economy, now in deep crisis.
Ignatius is critical of the agreements. To him, Russian promises to keep the Iranians at a distance are unreliable and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite militias could easily re-infiltrate the areas, under the auspices of the Syrian army. He quotes officials in Britain and France who doubt Russia’s readiness to keep its commitments – and he also complains that the Sunni rebels in Syria, to whom the Obama administration gave limited support, have been abandoned to their fate.
Israel has not yet said how it will conduct itself vis a vis “the locals” – the Sunni militias on the Syrian side of the border in the Golan – to which it has in recent years provided humanitarian aid – clothing, food and medical care. Statements by Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the IDF spokesman over the past few days have related only to refugees who reached the border last week, and not the inhabitants of the villages that the militias protect. However, in light of the repeated Israeli statements about maintaining a policy of non-intervention in Syria, and in the context of reports of understandings with Russia, Israel will probably not grant military assistance to the rebels in the Syrian Golan.
Augmented Israeli forces in the Golan Heights, a lightning visit by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot in Washington, and frequent consultations among the political and military leadership show that Israel is entering a very delicate phase with regard to the Syrian civil war. Protecting its security interests in the north while avoiding entry into the fighting itself, are becoming an immediate challenge this week. It will require great caution and continued conveyance of tough messages.