Iran is expanding its sphere of influence toward the Israeli border, possibly leading to explosive results. In mid-February an Iranian drone was shot down by Israel and an Israeli jet was in turn shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
However, the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxies are not deterred by possible escalation. An agreement signed in November by the United States, Russia and Jordan allows Iran to solidify its presence up to 5 kilometers from the Israeli border. There is no reason to assume pro-Iranian forces will not come even closer if they can.
Israel finds this situation unbearable. It attempted to influence the signatories to the November agreement to keep pro-Iranian forces 60km from the border, but this increasingly seems like a pipe dream. Instead it has adopted a policy seeking a narrower security zone (of unknown depth) into Syria.
It has pursued this using two major means. The first is increasingly tenacious and frequent bombing runs against Syrian, Hezbollah and Iranian targets. The loss of an F-16 jet and the fear of entanglement with the Russians has not restrained these efforts.
More secretly and controversially, Israel has stepped up aid to Syrian rebel forces near the border. In the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, Israel limited involvement to humanitarian aid, evacuating roughly 5,000 wounded warriors to Israeli hospitals. Attempts by leaders of the southern factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to persuade Israel to establish a no-fly zone near the border failed.
As the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, gained the upper hand, the zone controlled by the FSA narrowed significantly. In January, the administration of US President Donald Trump closed the Central Intelligence Agency operations center in Amman, the Jordanian capital, which coordinated aid to rebel organizations in southern Syria. This terminated the already inadequate aid the US was providing to FSA troops in this sector.
During the past few weeks reports have emerged that Israel is upping its support to militias in the region. The Israeli government, by various means, is providing elements affiliated with the FSA with weapons, ammunition and money to purchase weapons on the black market. Support is probably also extended to more “moderate” jihadist groups, although neither side will admit it.
The Israeli government is providing elements affiliated with the Free Syrian Army with weapons, ammunition and money to purchase weapons on the black market. Support is probably also extended to more ‘moderate’ jihadist groups, although neither side will admit it
As a result, over the past six months the area has become a de facto Israeli buffer zone. The spokesman for the Fursan al-Joulan militia (not affiliated with the FSA) said: “Israel stood by our side in a heroic way. We wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.”
Israel has been the protector of some of these communities diplomatically as well as militarily. It has participated in negotiating reconciliation between the Assad government and some local militias. The goal of these agreements is to allow militias to continue to control their territory, while attaining the Assad regime’s seal of approval. By attaining deals of this sort, Israel hopes to bolster the Assad regime and wean it off its dependence on Iran. After all, Israel enjoyed a stable border with Syria in the past and hopes to do so again in the future.
Israel has also developed direct ties with the residents of the area, assisting in the construction of schools and hospitals. Local councils and community notables have participated in distributing Israeli rice, milk, flour and other products still in their original Israeli packaging. While initially weary of Israeli involvement, locals are warming up to it, mostly because no one else will support them.
The extent of Israeli commitment to militias and communities in the area places it on the horns of a painful dilemma. The FSA cannot hold off pro-Iranian forces independently. Upholding a buffer zone in western Syria will likely require ever-escalating Israeli logistical support, air power and elite-unit presence. In the long run if it determines that safeguarding its allies is a central Israeli interest, it may be tempted to send in an undisguised military presence to signal to Iran and Hezbollah that it means business.
On the other hand, the Israeli government is well aware of the pitfalls of involvement in western Syria. In the early days of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Israel opened its border to its Maronite Christian allies and provided them with logistical support, arms, an outlet for their goods and humanitarian aid. Then-prime minister Menachem Begin felt it was Israel’s moral duty to protect the Christians, whom he believed were being persecuted by the Palestinians as the Jews were persecuted by the Nazis.
After the 1982 Lebanon War, Israel set up a “security zone” consisting of roughly 10% of Lebanon in areas abutting its northern frontier to keep the Palestine Liberation Organization away and provide support for its proxy the Christian Southern Lebanon Army (SLA). As the PLO lost power and was replaced by the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah, the SLA was hard pressed to hold its own, and Israel stationed large numbers of troops in the area.
In 1997 the Israeli military experienced a tragic helicopter crash over Lebanon, killing 73 soldiers. Public opinion turned sharply against the occupation of southern Lebanon. Three years later, Israel withdrew unilaterally, leaving its allies to fend for themselves. The SLA soon collapsed, with most officers and administration officials fleeing to Israel. Individuals affiliated with the SLA were arrested and, in some cases, tortured to death by Hezbollah.
Israel’s former allies were resentful. One SLA soldier expressed the feelings of many when he said: “Israel betrayed us.…We helped them in our land. For 25 years we were with her.”
With this in mind, Israel now faces an unappetizing dilemma. It can abandon its allies to a horrible fate and watch Iran take over the Syrian-Israeli border. Alternatively, it can launch, deja vu and all, a horrific proxy war that will prolong misery for everyone.
As any Middle East watcher knows, in this region there are few good choices and fewer positive outcomes.