The war in Syria may be the worst humanitarian catastrophe since World War II, producing nearly 6 million refugees by some estimates. Fleeing attacks by the Islamic State, Russia, the Assad regime and their allies, some 2 million Syrians in northwest Syria have fled to Turkey, and from there to Greece, while an estimated one and a half million have entered Jordan from the south. Another one and a half million refugees have crossed into Lebanon.
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But Jordan and Turkey are doing all they can to close their borders, and the European Union hopes to finalize an agreement with Turkey this week intended to put an end to the stream of refugees into Greece.
The situation has brought renewed attention to the possibility of establishing “safe zones” in Syria where civilians would be protected from air and ground attacks to allow for humanitarian aid, and to alleviate pressure on the country’s neighbors and Europe.
So far, Israel has kept quiet, observing but not intervening in the conflict – aside from treating wounded Syrians who cross into Israel.
But Syrian dissident Dr. Kamal Al-Labwani, who was jailed repeatedly in Syria for opposing President Bashar Assad until he was smuggled out in 2012, and Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana, who has helped rescue Jews and Jewish artifacts from Syria and founded the humanitarian diplomacy group Amaliah, envision a more proactive approach.
In visits to Israel in late February and early March, the two attempted to enlist Israeli support for the creation of a safe zone in southern Syria.
“Israel has had the opportunity to be a good neighbor to the Syrian people, but, other than offering medical aid, we have almost missed our chance to do the right thing and help the people in need,” Kahana told Haaretz.
Al-Labwani and Kahana are proposing an area that would extend around 10 kilometers to the east of the Israeli border and 20 kilometers south of Quneitra. Humanitarian supplies from Israel would enter by way of the Quneitra crossing, facilitated by the UN Disengagement Observer Force, which has been stationed there since 1974 following the Yom Kippur War.
In an interview with Haaretz, Al-Labwani explained that he represents 40 groups comprising the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, which was founded when dissidents broke away from the Syrian Army. According to Al-Labwani, there are currently some 200,000 Syrians in the area, both locals and internally displaced refugees, most of them women and children.
The Islamic State is not – or at least not yet, Al-Labwani said – threatening the area, quite possibly, as he put it, due to its proximity to Israel. Led by the Free Syrian Army, the residents of the proposed zone have begun to create functional organizations in the chaos of what was the Syrian state, but they already face a severe humanitarian crisis as Assad’s forces prevent supplies from reaching them.
Rather than establishing tent camps, the safe zone envisioned by Kahana and Al-Labwani would build on the infrastructure of the 20 or so villages that already exist in the region, most of which are Muslim along with a few enclaves of Druze and Christians. With international aid, they could take in tens of thousands of additional refugees.
“We are not asking Israel to intervene in the conflict, but merely to open its border to allow humanitarian aid to get through,” Al-Labwani said. “This is an initiative of the people in the region and the people who have fled to the region. We have the right to live safely and in peace, and not to be starved and bombed.”
When asked about the presence of Al-Qaida-linked Nusra fighters in the area, Al-Labwani said the Free Syrian Army, supported by the people living in the region, “will guarantee our own security and future.”
‘Israel is a moral state’
Various international and local efforts to establish a safe zone in northern Syria have failed, Al-Labwani said, because none of the international groups involved in the conflict, or which have interests in Syria, including the United States, have been willing to take responsibility to enforce it.
He believes that the southern area holds more promise, because of the presence of UNDOF and because, he said, Israel would allow for the safe passage of humanitarian aid.
Israeli security and diplomatic sources did not respond to requests for information on Israel’s position. But while in Israel, Al-Labwani met with MK Ayoub Kara (Likud), an Israeli Druze and deputy minister of regional cooperation. Kara has expressed support for the plan but has not suggested concrete steps for its implementation.
Al-Labwani and Kahana also met recently with a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and toured the Syrian border. Kahana said that Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman and CEO of the conference, is supportive of the plan and offered the help of the American Jewish community, though Hoenlein did not respond to requests to confirm this.
Israeli and international experts suggest that in addition to its humanitarian value, the plan to allow aid to pass through Israel could provide strategic value. Nimrod Goren, founder and chairman of Mitvim, an Israeli foreign policy think tank, says the plan would give Israel the chance to develop contacts with Syrians like Al-Labwani, who may play central roles in Syria’s future.
Similarly, Nir Boms, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz, “Israel has been staying very low in Syria, without putting any boots on the ground. But we do have interests in what happens in Syria in the future, and this kind of effort could help ensure that Syrians will be less hostile to us.”
In a recent newsletter published by the Washington Institute, Nadav Pollak, a foreign policy expert and fellow there, noted that Israel’s interests in Syria included guaranteeing the “safety, security, stability and prosperity of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” He said “above all, helping Jordan cope in recent years with the immense influx of Syrian refugees remains crucial. A southern safe zone could serve all of these interests.”
Some are less optimistic. To support a safe zone, the countries involved, including Israel, “would have to be assured that the area would be maintained by a credible organization that can be counted on to prevent a take-over by the extremists, “ said Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former chief of Military Intelligence's research division, a former director general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, and now a project director at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
At this point, he told Haaretz, “the FSA is not a stable organization and it is unclear that it could maintain effective control or governability, even within a safe zone.”
Furthermore, Kuperwasser said, it is unlikely that international powers would be any more willing to enforce a safe zone in the south than they were in the north, or any more capable of agreeing on a policy.
“This would involve a level of intervention that so far, the United States and European countries have refused to take upon themselves,” he said, adding that it could also potentially create conflict with Russia.
But Kahana warns that the humanitarian crisis “can only get worse.” “What will Israel do when thousands of starving, wounded women and children try to break down the fences to get across the border into Israel to save their lives?” he said.
“Israel is a moral state. I cannot imagine that we would fire at them to prevent them from coming across. It would be better to stave off that worst-case scenario by creating a safe zone now.”