Israeli support for rebels in southern Syria — but then a sense of betrayal
Writing in Foreign Policy, Elizabeth Tsurkov illuminates how Israel has balanced the different sides in Syria’s 80-month conflict.
While opposing the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power, Israel’s priority on a buffer zone in southwest Syria, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Height, led to support of rebel factions that could be a barrier to Hezbollah, Iran, and Iranian-led foreign militia allied with the Assad regime.
The support came to an end this summer as a pro-Assad offensive, enabled by Russian airstrikes, rolled up the opposition areas across southern Syria.
Assad supporters, conspiracy theorists, and even some mainstream commentators have jumped on Tsurkov’s article to push notions of an Israeli “alliance” with the Islamic State — who had a locally-aligned faction in western Daraa Province until July — or even “Al Qa’eda”.
Tsurkov has knocked this back in favor of an appreciation of Israel’s sometimes-complex political and miltiary maneuvers.
That conspiratorial reporting contributed to the false sense of safety of southern Syria communities. Residents & rebels repeatedly asked when the safe zone is going to be established. When I replied with "never," many refused to believe me, clinging onto hope of protection.
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) September 8, 2018
Israel secretly armed and funded at least 12 rebel groups in southern Syria that helped prevent Iran-backed fighters and militants of the Islamic State from taking up positions near the Israeli border in recent years, according to more than two dozen commanders and rank-and-file members of these groups.
The military transfers, which ended in July of this year, included assault rifles, machine guns, mortar launchers and transport vehicles. Israeli security agencies delivered the weapons through three gates connecting the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria—the same crossings Israel used to deliver humanitarian aid to residents of southern Syria suffering from years of civil war.
Israel also provided salaries to rebel fighters, paying each one about $75 a month, and supplied additional money the groups used to buy arms on the Syrian black market, according to the rebels and local journalists.
The payments, along with the service Israel was getting in return, created an expectation among the rebels that Israel would intercede if troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad tried to advance on southern Syria.
When regime forces backed by Russian air power did precisely that this past summer, Israel did not intervene, leaving the rebel groups feeling betrayed.
“This is a lesson we will not forget about Israel. It does not care about…the people. It does not care about humanity. All it cares about itsits own interests,” said Y., a fighter from one of the groups, Forsan al-Jolan.
Israel has tried to keep its relationship with the groups a secret. Though some publications have reported on it, the interviews Foreign Policy conducted with militia members for this story provide the most detailed account yet of Israel’s support for the groups. All the fighters spoke on the condition that their names and factions not be revealed.
The quantity of arms and money Israel transferred to the groups—comprising thousands of fighters — is small compared to the amounts provided by other countries involved in the 7-year-old civil war, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States. Even at the height of the Israeli assistance program earlier this year, rebel commanders complained that it was insufficient.
But the assistance is significant for several reasons. It marks one more way Israel has been trying to prevent Iran from entrenching its position in Syria — alongside airstrikes on Iranian encampments and political pressure Israel brought to bear via Russia, the main power broker in Syria.
It also raises questions about the balance of power in Syria as the civil war there finally winds down. With the Iranian forces that helped Assad defeat the rebels showing no inclination to withdraw from Syria, the potential for the country to become a flash point between Israel and Iran looms large.