Islamists, Syria and Israel

Israeli soldiers stand next to food supplies being prepared for Syrian IDPs. Israel is planning for a new field hospital to treat patients from the civil-war hit country.
Israeli soldiers stand next to food supplies being prepared for Syrian IDPs. Israel is planning for a new field hospital to treat patients from the civil-war hit country. (Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP / Getty Images)

The settlement of the ongoing conflict in Syria becomes complicated because of the involvement of both regional and external actors, as well as terrorist organizations.

The starting point for the conflict’s resolution should be the achievement of a compromise during negotiations between the main centers of power.

The launch of the Center for Reconciliation of the Conflict Parties in Syria was significant progress. Its creation became possible because of an agreement between the Russian Federation and the United States.

The primary objective of the Center is to monitor the ceasefire regime. Within the framework of the agreements between Russia and the US, formulated as “Reducing Violence, Restoring Access and Establishing a Joint Executive Center”, it was also necessary to fulfill one of the key tasks in the process of the Syrian settlement, on which Russia insisted. It was important to differentiate the radical opposition ( read terrorists) from the moderate one. It is this issue that has become an important stumbling block to the Russian-American dialogue on the settlement. Despite the mechanism developed in this direction, so far it’s been without success.

With a gradual progress in the struggle against Islamic State, it becomes necessary to fill the vacuum in the negotiation process and to distribute the spheres of responsibility. The G20 summit, held in Hamburg, became a sign of progress in this direction. During this summit, the heads of Russia and the U.S. reached significant agreement on Syria that involved the ceasefire in the southwest of the country and establishment of a monitoring center in Jordan to insure this regime.

Since the agreements between Russia and the U.S. include the areas located on the border with Israel, the position of the latter has also been taken into account by the sides during the formation of the de-escalation zone and the center in Amman.

Neutralizing main threats to Israel

Officially, the State of Israel continues to adhere to the policy of non-interference in the conflict. However, Israel cannot ignore the armed conflict on its northern borders, in which terrorist organizations, Iran and Hezbollah, are involved. In this regard, Israel has designated “red lines.” If they are crossed, Israel will be forced to react.

These red lines are: transfer of weapons to organizations that pose a threat to Israel (Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Forces), shells being fired into Israeli territory, the advance of hostile groups towards the Syrian-Israeli border, and the creation of military infrastructure that can be used against the Jewish State.

New Hezbollah recruits in Lebanon salute during a ceremony
New Hezbollah recruits in Lebanon salute during a ceremony (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The direct participation of Iran and Hezbollah raises reasonable concerns for Israel. The number of fighters, according to different sources of data, was 4-5 thousand. However, the number doubled with the beginning of the offensive operation in the province of Aleppo. The losses are put at about 1,500.

Jerusalem believes Iran plans to open a second front near the Golan Heights. According to a statement from the Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Tehran sent military advisors to Syria that specialize in combating terrorism. However, since the beginning of the conflict, the IRGC has lost more than 1,100 soldiers, including at least two generals and officers. In 2016, according to a Human Rights Watch report, Iran sent more than 10,000 Persian-speaking Hazaras from Afghanistan to participate in the conflict in Syria on the side of the government forces. According to information from various media, there are between 3- and 10-thousand Iranian soldiers in Syria.

Concerning the terrorist organizations, it is necessary to emphasize that about 20 settlements continue to be occupied by the ISIS in the province of Dar’a near the Golan Heights. This branch of the ISIS is called Jaysh Khalid Ibn Al-Walid. It absorbed three factions operating in the area: Jaysh al-Jihad, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and Harakat al-Mutan al-Islamiya. This consolidation shows the terrorist groups decided to merge their resources, both financial and human, to fight more efficiently against three forces: the government, the opposition and potentially with Israel.

Obviously, small factions are not able to perform large-scale operations in the area because they are isolated from the main forces. In this regard, it is likely that their primary goal at this stage is to retain the occupied positions. However, from time to time, the situation worsens, and Israel is forced to respond by conducting limited forestalling operations to prevent further escalation near the Golan Heights.

To ensure its national security, Israel relies on its armed forces, mainly the Air Force that is the most efficient in the Middle East. Analysis of the Israeli Air Force’s operations suggests the primary targets of the attacks are convoys with modern weapons that are intended for Hezbollah, capable of undermining Israel’s superiority “in the air,” as well as the leadership of this organization, which is involved in operations against Israel.

Israel also strikes at the positions of the SAA (military infrastructure, administrative buildings, artillery and mortar positions) and terrorist organizations (personnel of subversive groups, air defense systems).

The logic of the Israeli operations in Syrian territory originates in the 2015 IF strategy which describes the tactics of deterring the enemy:

  1. Demonstration of the threat of violent offensive actions, which will lead to grave consequences in case of any attacks on Israel.
  2. Increasing strength, indicating the futility of any enemy efforts (for example, the development of active defense systems).
  3. Measures aimed at disrupting the enemy’s plans.


Creation of a buffer zone

In addition to providing military security, Israel conducts direct work with the local population and members of the factions located on the Syrian border near the Golan Heights.

Initially, the medical assistance was provided to wounded members of various rebel groups in Syria. The most affected were treated in the hospitals of Safed and Nahariya. According to Israel’s Channel 10, medical centers in the north of Israel reported spending about $37 million on the treatment of victims during the Syrian civil war. It should be noted that assistance is provided not only to the insurgent forces but also to the members of terrorist organizations that openly declare the need to struggle against Israel as one of the main enemies.

Smoke rises after a shell exploded in a Syrian village during fighting between forces loyal to the Syrian regime and rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Smoke rises after a shell exploded in a Syrian village during fighting between forces loyal to the Syrian regime and rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)

In addition to medical assistance, Israel also reportedly provides financial aid to rebel factions. For example, the commander of Fursan al-Joulan (or Knights of the Golan) said that his group receives $5,000 a month from Israel. He added the following: “We wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.”

In parallel with the provision of medical care on its territory, Israel also conducts humanitarian actions on Syrian territory. Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon said Israel supplied baby food, blankets, as well as additional humanitarian assistance to Syrian citizens, living near the border with Israel.

According to declassified IDF data, within the framework of the “Good Neighborhood” project, Israel provides assistance in the cross-border zone, which is some 25 miles long. About 200,000 Syrian citizens live in this territory.

In 2011, Israel delivered 500,000 liters of diesel fuel to the Syrian villages, donated dozens of generators and vehicles to Syrians, and provided medical assistance to 4,000 citizens. In general, Israel supplied 220 tons of food to the civilian population.

The government of Israel implements many programs aimed at supporting ethno-confessional minorities, living on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. For example, in 2016, it approved $500 million plan for the development of the Druze and Circassian communities. It is scheduled to build 30-34,000 housing units, six public buildings in the Druze villages of the Golan Heights, eight commercial and industrial zones, etc.

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized Israel is closely following the situation around the Druze communities on the Syrian side of the border and ordered to take all necessary measures to protect them. This statement came at the time of a mass rally of the Druze communities in the Golan Heights, calling for support to their fellow tribesmen in Syria after the killing of 20 ethnic Druze by the terrorists of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham organization.

Israel seeks a non-violent approach on the part of all forces near its borders, actively working with the Druze and the Arab populations living near the Golan Heights, as well as with the armed groups.

Israel neutralizes any threats that may come from these territories, and in the future, it will also consolidate its positions in these areas, which will simplify the potential confrontation with hostile forces inside Syria.

South Syria de-escalation zone

The aforementioned de-escalation zone will include three districts – Dar’a, Quneitra and Suwayda. The creation of de-escalation zones was discussed during the U.S.-Russian negotiations in Astana. According to a report from Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, the negotiations continue on the other three areas (in the provinces of Homs, Idlib and East Ghouta). It was possible to create the first de-escalation zone in the south of Syria since it was the least controversial, and the interests of regional players and external actors did not overly object.

As was already noted, the Russians, Americans and Jordanians were responsible for this zone. Since Jordan and the U.S. have significant influence on the factions in these areas, it simplifies the issue of monitoring. Lavrov stressed the center would be in direct contact with the opposition groups and the representatives of government forces.

Man of influence? Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani
Man of influence? Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. (Photo: Reuters)

Given that Israel is not party to the negotiation process, it needs to communicate its position to Moscow and Washington. So, on the eve of the July 6 summit, on Israel’s initiative, Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone. The pair are said to have spoken about the joint efforts in the struggle against international terrorism, the problems of a Middle-East settlement and the situation in Syria. The position was conveyed to the American side through Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk, U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney, as well as during the conversation with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Nevertheless, Israel opposed this agreement. Netanyahu expressed negative attitude towards the ceasefire deal during a news conference in Paris. The main problem was that the Russian and American sides did not adequately take into account Israel’s position, as the Iranian forces would be kept as little as 12 miles from the cross-border territories. This radius is not a sufficient buffer zone for Israel. One of the main requirements was also to exclude the consolidation of pro-Iranian forces in Syria, which would create a new front against Israel near the Golan Heights.

One of the principal tasks for Israel is to eliminate the presence of Iran in Syria and the forces that are loyal to Tehran. These forces are not party to the truce, which means they can consolidate and subsequently expand their presence along the perimeter of the de-escalation zone.

Since the Iranian Quds Force, Hezbollah and the other pro-Iranian forces can expand their presence, Israel will have no choice other than to continue its policy to neutralize the potential threats. Simultaneously, Israel will continue its humanitarian assistance to the local population, using the Druze factor. Israel will have to support the armed groups more actively and continue to provide them with medical and financial aid because they can serve as a “shield” in the way of pro-Iranian forces heading south. Thereby, Israel will consolidate the created buffer zone, and gain the loyalty of the population in the cross-border areas, as well as that of the armed groups that control these areas.

The issue of keeping Iran and the forces loyal to it is probably entrusted to Russia, which has influence on the pro-government forces. At the same time, the American side will restrain the opposition forces in this area, but, according to the agreement, it will not be able to strike at the positions of the government forces. This state of affairs is favorable for Israel.

Although Israel is informally connected to the agreements in the south of Syria, it does not directly participate in the settlement process, as it continues to adhere to the official policy of non-interference in the conflict. However, if its interests are ignored, it will be difficult to guarantee the real functioning of the ceasefire regime. In this regard, changes are possible in this mechanism that are likely to be discussed at a meeting of experts from Israel, Russia and the U.S. in Vienna, which was previously announced by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Another important issue is which forces will insure the security of this de-escalation zone. According to Lavrov, “at first, the security around this area of de-escalation will be provided with the use of forces and resources of the Russian military police, in coordination with the Americans and the Jordanians.” However, it was negatively received in Israel.

In the case of farming out the issue of providing this security zone to the Russian side, there is a risk this will allow Iran and Hezbollah to consolidate their positions. It is evident that Israel will continue to strike at convoys of armaments if the Iranian side continues to deliver them to Hezbollah. It will also hit at the positions of Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian forces if they take advantage of the situation to create a de-escalation zone, the security of which will be provided by Russians.

This scenario may not receive support from the United States and Jordan. In this regard, it becomes necessary to create a mixed group in which all forces will be represented. It will enable Israel to continue to consolidate its positions in the cross-border areas, and the subsequent fragmentation of Syria on the ethno-confessional basis with the consolidation of spheres of influence over the external forces will make possible to remove the issue of the Golan Heights from the agenda.

Should this zone functions properly, an issue concerning the territories controlled by the terrorist organizations will appear later: either they will be knocked out or dissolved into the opposition groups. It will create new opportunities for Israel to extend its sphere of influence to the southern regions of Syria (Dar’a and Quneitra), where Damascus will no longer have a direct impact. It will also create a serious buffer zone against the penetration of the pro-Iranian forces that sought to create military infrastructure against Israel.

SM
Sergey Melkonyan
Sergey Melkonyan is the head of Moscow’s International Studies analytical center and a columnist on Russia in Global Affairs Journal.