In Syrian civil war, Israel finds itself between a rock and a hard place


When the regime of Bashar al-Assad launched an all-out assault on eastern Aleppo in 2016, tens of thousands of civilians sought refuge in the Idlib province. When Syrian forces crushed the rebellion in Ghouta, thousands more travelled north. Now the Syrian military, with the backing of Iran and Russia, are gearing up for the final assault on the last-remaining rebel stronghold of Idlib.

A senior U.S. official warned two weeks ago that there is “lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared” by the Syrian regime. Approximately 3 million civilians — including 1 million children — are trapped in the middle between the advancement and bombardment of the forces of the regime and its allies.

With the world wavering and the chemical attacks continuing, Israel has found itself more and more drawn into the chaos. What set out as a strict survival policy to contain the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the country has, over the years, evolved into a multi-faceted strategy to meet Israel’s security needs and ease the unimaginable suffering of Syria’s civilians.

Israel’s involvement in the Syrian war goes back to the beginning. For the first six years of the civil uprising, Israel was the only foreign country to have bombed the Assad regime and allied forces. Many Syrians have not forgotten that. A wounded patient from Syria, raised by his family to hate Israel, captured this sentiment when he said from his Israeli hospital bed last year, “Israel is not the enemy. Bashar is the enemy.”

Assad’s main foreign backer Iran, meanwhile, has been attempting to carve out a new front on Israel’s borders that would complete an arc of influence stretching to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon via its proxy Hezbollah. This has left Israel to enforce its own red lines.

The IDF said earlier this month that Israel struck more than 200 Iranian military targets in Syria over the past year and a half. The army also fired over 800 missiles and mortar shells in its efforts to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria.

After Russia entered the civil war five years ago to prop up the Assad regime, Israel negotiated with Moscow various “de-escalation agreements,” to avoid Russian casualties during Israeli airstrikes and win the Kremlin’s support to curtail Tehran’s influence in the country. These efforts have largely been rebuffed.

Instead, Israel developed uneasy partnerships with anti-Assad fighters along the border. But more importantly perhaps, Israel also forged genuine partnerships with aid organizations on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and launched an unprecedented campaign to ease the suffering of Syrian civilians — despite the fact that Israel and Syria remain officially at war.

Since 2013, Israel has treated more than 5,000 wounded Syrians in Israeli military field hospitals at the border and at the public hospital in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya, providing them with life-saving medical treatment. In addition, since 2016, as part of “Operation Good Neighbor,” more than 110 aid operations of various kinds have been conducted, including the delivery of food, gasoline, clothes and large quantities of pharmaceuticals such as painkillers and anesthetics.

The Jewish state’s efforts to alleviate the suffering of Syria’s civilian population stands in stark contrast to the position taken by the Palestinian leadership, despite the siege of 20,000 Palestinians in Yarmouk in south Damascus. After intense fighting in April and May of this year, Syrian regime forces took the camp, and the population is now reduced to 100-200. The others fled, or were bombed, shot and starved to death.

Palestinian political factions, such as Fatah and the PLO, have either sided with the Assad regime or remained silent. When America, Britain and France in April destroyed chemical weapons facilities of the regime in retaliation for a poison attack on civilians in the Damascus enclave of Douma, the
Gaza-based Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which is sponsored by the Iranian regime, publicly denounced the airstrikes.

The decision by Israel to step up the involvement in a conflict it made every effort to stay out of, was partly informed by security concerns. But it was also grounded in genuine revulsion over the Assad regime’s industrial-scale killing with the help of the world’s most hideous weapons.

Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, called the war in Syria “a small Holocaust” in October 2016.

“The people of Israel underwent a horrible Holocaust 70 years ago,” Yosef said. “Millions of Jews were murdered … and the world saw and remained silent; we as Jews who felt this silence in our own flesh cried out for years, we asked how the world knew and remained silent? … As Jews it is forbidden for us to remain silent … Genocide cannot be ignored, not in Syria and not anywhere, and not against any people, even if they are not our friends.”

Israel honored that commitment, when the IDF in July carried out a daring rescue mission of over 400 members of the Syrian Civil Defense organization, also known as the White Helmets, and their families, from southwestern Syria into Jordan. The rescue mission was widely hailed as a success.

As the world prepares for the worst in Syria’s Idlib — including another chemical weapons attack — the sight of innocents being gassed to death is felt by many Israelis, and the Jewish people. My hope is that Syrians will remember who stood with them in their struggle and those who did not.

Joshua S. Block is CEO and president of The Israel Project. He is a former Clinton administration official and spokesman at the State Department’s USAID.

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