The Israeli apology to Turkey, made before the Passover holiday under heavy pressure on both sides by President Barack Obama at the end of his visit to Israel, was justified by the prime minister’s bureau mostly due to the new conditions in Syria. The seriousness of the situation of our northern neighbor, explained Netanyahu’s staff, requires the renewal of cooperation with Ankara.
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Wednesday, less than a week later, a French news agency report from the Golan Heights said the IDF had opened a field hospital on the Syrian border in the northern part of the Golan. This report quickly followed another report that Israel had for the third time in a month allowed Syrian rebels to enter Israel to receive medical treatment for the wounds they received in fighting the regime.
According to the French news agency AFP, the hospital is situated at Fortification 105 in the northern section of the Golan Heights. The army has declined to comment on the AFP report, but the IDF senior command has for some time been weighing the possibility of establishing a field hospital in a Golan Heights army base, in light of the increasing number of wounded Syrians being sent to the border with Israel.
A group of seven wounded Syrians on Wednesday arrived at the border with Israel, where they received medical treatment from an IDF unit. Two of those seriously wounded were transferred to Israeli hospitals to receive further medical attention. One of them, an active member of the Syrian opposition who was evacuated to Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, subsequently died of his wounds. On Wednesday night, an additional wounded Syrian who was in a very serious condition was brought to the hospital.
Seven wounded Syrians were evacuated for medical treatment to Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed in February. A few days after their evacuation, six of them were returned to Syria in the middle of the night, while the seventh is still hospitalized in Israel. Last week, an additional group of four wounded Syrians reached the Israeli border. Two of them were hospitalized in Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.
Does this latest wave of news reports mark a real change in Israeli policy regarding the Syrian civil war, which is entering its third year? The answer, as well as can be assessed for now, is no.
It is of course possible that Obama and Netanyahu reached other secret understandings as to the need for active steps to intervene in the events in Syria. But lacking any such evidence, the reasonable assumption is that Jerusalem’s policy remains the same. Israel is as wary as it can be of entering the internal conflict in Syria, while silently hoping the battles continue since they continue to erode the threat to Israel from Assad.
But since the situation in Syria is getting more and more complicated, Israel has been forced to raise its profile somewhat regarding events in Syria. This is expressed, at least publicly, in humanitarian actions such as accepting the wounded for medical treatment in Israel; and in the intelligence realm by increasing its monitoring of the war − out of fears of such possibilities as chemical weapons falling into hostile hands.
During the first year of the war, Israeli estimates were that Assad’s fall was unavoidable and he would be defeated by the rebels within a short time. These estimates were wrong. Instead of a decisive outcome, the situation is one of mutual paralysis. The rebels control some 65-75 percent of the country − but Assad has managed to keep effective control over many of the important areas: the big cities Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and the Alawite enclave in the northwestern part of the country.
Serious Russian and Iranian support allows Assad to hold on. Russia refuses − for now − to aid in deposing him, explaining that no one can guarantee that six months after Assad goes there will be stability or rehabilitation in Syria, or that the Syrian government that replaces the present one will be any better.
The war could still end quickly − via the assassination of Assad, which the rebels were close to carrying out a number of times − or with a surprise surrender and his abdication. But at least for now, it still seems like a long story is still ahead of us. The opposition claims it needs urgent aid from Europe and the Americans − in addition to the massive aid provided by Qatar and Saudi Arabia; since the window of opportunity to achieve victory in the battle is in the period between spring and fall, when the weather allows initiating significant ground attacks.
In the meantime, the process of Syria disintegrating into rival regions controlled by various ethnic groups continues.
This new situation does not really bother Israel. Last week, Gili Cohen reported in Haaretz on how an IDF division was moved from the operational plans of the Syrian front to the Lebanese front. The change shows the IDF thinks Lebanon is the greater challenge for now and the danger from a conventional conflict with Syria is lessening. At the same time, there is a declared U.S. policy of support for opposition forces in Syria while Israel is still worried about the use of chemical weapons, and it is also necessary to keep a small amount of principled support for the uprising against the dictatorial regime in Damascus.
All this can be relatively easily achieved by a few simple gestures such as accepting wounded along the border. These are small and cautious steps, which are in total just realistic feelers and not any major ambitions. It seems Israel does not have any real achievable goal of change in Syria, or the pretension of accumulating influence on the major players. For now, Israel is doing just what is necessary.
The conciliation with Turkey happened only because of the pressure applied by Obama last week. Obama told his hosts in Jerusalem that Turkey and Israel were the two anchor countries concerning the crisis in Syria, which is happening in both countries’ backyards. Obama asked on Wednesday, and on Friday the apology was already made and accepted.