Everything You Need to Know About the Syrian Refugee Crisis on Israel's Doorstep

Assad has gazed southward, wanting to regain control over Syria’s border with Jordan and Israel

Syrian government forces' soldiers hold their weapons in the province of Daraa, on June 29, 2018.
YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP

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Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled toward the Israeli and Jordanian borders recently, after forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad embarked on a campaign to regain the province of Daraa in southern Syria.

Forces operating in southern Syria

In recent months Assad’s forces have regained the area surrounding the Syrian capital of Damascus and pushed the rebels northward, toward Idlib. Assad has also gazed southward, wanting to regain control over Syria’s border with Jordan and Israel. Given that the rebels are not being given logistical support, overrunning their zones is considered to be relatively easy, raising questions about the fighting's repercussions.

Who is fighting who?

The fighting in Daraa between the Free Syrian Army and Syrian forces (backed by Iranian militias, Hezbollah and Russian air support), began on June 9. The rebel Free Syrian Army consists mainly of Syrian civilians as well as former Syrian soldiers and officers.

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Another force in the area is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Al-Nusra Front), which consisting of Syrians who at the start of the civil war were identified with Al-Qaida. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has been working at distinguishing itself from Al-Qaida and the Islamic State in the last two years.

The Assad regime has shown some willingness to regulate the status of the fighters in the Free Syrian Army; it would rather eradicate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

How many refugees are there and where did they go?

According to the United Nations and human rights organizations, 270,000 have fled their homes in southern Syria, mostly heading for the Jordan border and some toward Quneitra in the Syrian Golan Heights. Some went to existing refugee camps and some to new tent compounds that Israel and Jordan helped establish. Some headed for areas around Damascus where the fighting is over.

Why is Israel concerned by the fighting?

Israel does not want Iranian meddling in the form of militias, consultants and weapons supplies anywhere near its border. The only acceptable outcome for Israel is Assad’s control of the area when the fighting ends. Israel also wants to maintain its cease-fire agreement with Syria dating from 1974, regulating the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

Israel conveyed recently to both the Kremlin and Washington that it won’t sit idly by if its red lines are crossed. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot met with his American counterpart, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, to discuss scenarios that Israel cannot tolerate regarding the Syrian army, Iran, Hezbollah or other players.

The Israeli army even beefed up armed forces and artillery for the eventuality that intervention becomes necessary.

What happens when the refugees reach Israel’s border?

Israel has said it won’t allow refugees into its territory, but says it will continue to provide humanitarian aid, through third parties, and will accept the injured for medical treatment. Israel donated 300 tents, 13 tons of food, 15 tons of baby food, three pallets of medical equipment and drugs, and 30 tons of clothing and shoes last weekend.

What is Jordan doing?

Jordan says it can’t take in any more refugees and will close its border with Syria. Jordan has accepted more than a million Syrians since the start of the civil war in 2011. Amman said last weekend it would deliver humanitarian aid to the border area and asked for intervention by international organizations.

What is the rest of the world doing?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on the Syrian government to stop the heavy bombing because of the loss of lives. Jan Egeland, UN adviser on humanitarian aid, called on Jordan to reopen its border and let in more Syrian refugees.

The United States criticized Assad’s campaign in Daraa and warned that it would take unspecified steps. American officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis, expressed concern about Russia’s involvement in the fighting in favor of Assad.

Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked by phone last month about the fighting in Syria, following which Pompeo "reemphasized the U.S.' commitment to southwest cease-fire arrangement that was approved by President Donald Trump and President [Vladimir] Putin one year ago," according to the U.S. State Department.