Syria's Assad Is Taking Over the Border Region, Presenting Israel With a Moral Dilemma

The return of the Assad regime to border areas could ensure greater stability and block the flood of Sunni jihadists into the area, but there is a catch

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Israeli soldiers drive armored military vehicles during training exercises in the Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, June 17, 2015.
Israeli soldiers drive armored military vehicles during training exercises in the Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, June 17, 2015.Credit: Bloomberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

On the Syrian side of the border, in the northwestern part of the Golan Heights, the Syrian army has returned to its old ways. Army units surround small Sunni villages and give them an ultimatum: Surrender and swear allegiance to the Assad regime or face annihilation. Step by step, Syrian President Bashar Assad is recovering territory that was wrested from him during the civil war. The Syrian army and militias operating in coordination with it now control 70 percent of the country, and most of the population is now under his rule. In the summer of 2015, before Russia’s military intervention, Assad controlled only one quarter of the country.

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The deployment of two squadrons of Russian jets in the autumn of that year set in motion a host of developments that have culminated in what now appears to be victory for the regime. First, in December 2016, the rebels in Aleppo surrendered, following the brutal steamroller of the Russian aerial bombardment. Last month, Islamic State in eastern Syria also collapsed, following an aggressive assault by the U.S.-led coalition. The defeat of Islamic State was exploited by the regime, Iran and the Shi’ite militias, taking over large areas that the extremist organization had controlled.

The next phase, as reported the other day in Haaretz, will probably unfold in the southern part of the country, close to the border with Israel. The regime wishes to regain control of the border with Lebanon, on the northern slopes of Mount Hermon. Following this, according to assessments in Israel, Assad’s military units, backed by Hezbollah and other militias, will try and remove Sunni rebels from the central and southern areas of the Golan, an area they took over five years ago. This may be a more difficult task since the army’s success in other areas drove hundreds of rebels to the Golan. For example, the Islamic State faction currently holding an enclave in the southern Golan, near the border with Israel and Jordan, has one thousand combatants.

These changes pose a new dilemma for Israel, one with a moral aspect as well. Over the last two years, as part of its “good neighbor” policy, Israel has been providing medical aid, food and clothing to the residents of villages lying close to the border. Relations with people there have improved (Arab media report that the humanitarian aid includes shipments of ammunition, but not guns). Fear of the terrible Zionist devil, which the Syrian education system instilled in its citizens for decades, has been replaced with respect for Israel’s efforts. What will Israel do now, when the regime adopts its usual methods for retaking these villages?

Some of Israel’s politicians and defense establishment figures regard the new developments with a cold analytical view. The return of the Assad regime to border areas could ensure greater stability and block the flood of Sunni jihadists into the area. According to one analysis, the convergence of interests between Syria and its Iranian allies may be weakened the more the Assad regime is strengthened, and that the Syrian president will not allow them to approach the border.

On the other hand, the Israeli military is not comfortable with a situation in which Israel is a bystander taking no action as the war criminal Assad advances, reaping the fruits of his victory. All sides in the civil war in Syria committed horrific war crimes, but the ones by Assad’s forces were consistently the most brutal of them all. As a very senior Israeli officer said a few years ago, history will judge Israel harshly for its acquiescence and for not lifting a finger to stop the massacre taking place only a few miles from its border.

Lieberman’s about-face

There is a certain unavoidable irony in the fact that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, of all people, must now explain Israel’s policy of restraint in the face of taunts from the Gaza Strip.

Salafi groups in the Strip have fired nearly 30 rockets since Trump’s statement of American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and it seems that the trend has been winding down over the past few days, in light of the Hamas’ government’s demonstration of restraint. These rockets have presented the Netanyahu government with yet another dilemma. A harsh punitive action against Hamas, as the duo of Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid chairman MK Yaid Lapid called for this week, could embroil Israel in a useless war. In contrast, the relative restraint in the face of the ongoing drizzle of rockets on the Gaza border settlements could have a domestic political price, and could also persuade Hamas that it has room to maneuver with even more rockets.

The defense minister, who was the right flank of the cabinet when he was foreign minister during the 2014 Gaza war, the man who attacked the government for its weakness until his surprising return to it last year, the man who threatened Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh with death within 48 hours of becoming defense minister – now sees the picture a little differently. When the left and center demand action, Lieberman calmly explains why what the IDF is doing is enough for the time being. His analysis, which is based on Military Intelligence assessments, states that a few days more of restraint are needed until things calm down in the Gaza Strip. Hamas wants to direct the conflict with Israel into channels that are convenient for it, terror in the West Bank and protests along the Gaza border fence, but is afraid of continued rocket fire that it will not be able to control.

Lieberman visited the Gaza border on Tuesday. He held a calm conversation with local government leaders, who did not demand that the IDF take immediate action to defeat Hamas. However, a good part of the meeting was devoted to practical needs in the communities in that area: continued construction, which moved ahead during the period of calm following the 2014 Gaza war, water quotas for farmers and procedures for claiming compensation for wartime damage to property.

In the Knesset in Jerusalem, 20 minutes away by helicopter, the defense minister encountered a completely different atmosphere, on the verge of panic over security.

Luckily, at the time of this writing, the drizzle of rockets has diminished and the politicians have gone back to discussing the implications of the investigation of the prime minister. But the Trump crisis is not completely behind us. The Palestinian authority is still trying to breathe life into protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank, which are expected to resume on Friday, despite the fact that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has delayed his visit to the region. The Palestinian media is trying to brand the protest as “the capital intifada” (there has already been an Al Aqsa intifada).

It’s clear by now that the PA leadership is in utter despair over the peace process and hangs no hopes on a future peace initiative by Trump. The struggle, from its perspective, is moving to the international arena, with efforts to join more organizations and in passing resolutions against Israel. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whose failing health apparently shows that he’s at the end of the road in office, does not want to go down in Palestinian history as the man who gave in to Israel on the most important core issue, Jerusalem and the future of the holy places.

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