Syrian civil war, on Israel's doorstep, brings swirl of changing attitudes

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israeli soldiers stand guard as Syrians enter a screening room just after crossing the Golan Heights armistice line en route to medical treatment in Israel July 11.
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As Syria’s civil war shows signs of winding down, much of Israel’s focus is on Iran’s presence there. If Iranian forces approach the Golan Heights, Israel fears, they could lob missiles into much of Israel, adding a front in a future war. Israel has struck Iranian targets in Syria, and is imploring Russia, the main power broker, to rein Iran in. But for now the battle-scarred Golan is the scene of a much different drama. Thousands of Syrians fleeing the latest regime onslaught have pitched tents along the armistice line that for decades has separated Israeli and Syrian forces. Civilians taught to fear Israel are seeking safety on its doorstep. Word of Israeli assistance to border villages, which it undertook in part for its own security, has spread in Syria. “We saw how Israel treated Syrians in the last seven years, and the goodwill of the Israelis encouraged us to come to the border,” a teacher named Mohammed tells reporters. At an Israeli hospital, a doctor who has treated wounded Syrians says he does not differentiate between patients but admits: “If I can change the [attitudes] of the Syrian people, I will do it.”

Why We Wrote This

Wars bring horror, and Syria’s war is no exception. But in the desperate fight for survival, myths can be smashed, and that sets the stage for sometimes surprising changes in thinking.

About half a mile from Israeli-held territory, in a Syrian village on the edge of a yellowed valley, a smattering of tents can be seen, some pitched in a grove of trees, others spilling out from the yards of box-shaped houses.

Living in them are Syrians who fled a punishing military assault by their own government as it tries to quash an anti-regime rebellion – now in its eighth year – once and for all.

Further along the border, which has separated Israeli and Syrian forces for decades in this fortified former war zone, larger encampments can be seen, with hundreds of tents and trailer homes.

Why We Wrote This

Wars bring horror, and Syria’s war is no exception. But in the desperate fight for survival, myths can be smashed, and that sets the stage for sometimes surprising changes in thinking.

The presence of these internally displaced Syrians, under the gaze of Israeli army watchtowers and bases, is both visually striking and an indication of an at least temporary change in attitude among Syrians. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 have fled here, to Israel’s doorstep.

“We decided the safest place to be was the Israeli border,” said one of them, a 29-year-old teacher named Mohammed. He made the journey to the border village of Al Briqa after his hometown of Daraa – a rebel stronghold where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011 – came under heavy attack from Syrian ground forces and Russian warplanes in late June.

On Friday the first cease-fire deals were struck between Syria and rebels in the Daraa region, reportedly prompting some civilians to return home. The government’s assault sent an estimated 300,000 people fleeing their homes, many thronging toward Jordan as well as the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

“We saw how Israel treated Syrians in the last seven years, and the goodwill of the Israelis encouraged us to come to the border,” Mohammed told a group of reporters by Skype. “We know Israel is a strong country and no one can attack Israel.”

That Syrian civilians would look toward Israel for sanctuary is just one example of how the civil war has reshuffled attitudes here even as it has changed the balance of power. With both Russia and Iran on the winning side, there’s also a new impetus for Israel to court Russia and come to terms with Mr. Assad’s political survival.

For the Syrian civilians, the Golan border area is an appealing draw as a de-facto buffer zone. It falls in the demilitarized area delineated by the 1974 agreement ending the fighting between Israel and Syria that erupted in the 1973 Middle East war. And it has remained quiet all these years, even though technically the nations remain at war.

Word of Israel's "Operation Good Neighbor" seems to have spread, especially in southwest Syria, which unfolds beyond the territory that Israel first captured from Syria in 1967. The policy was launched five years ago as Syria’s civil war showed no sign of ending and amid Israeli concerns that Islamist militants among the Syrian rebels might use the area to launch attacks against Israel.

Israel decided the best way to minimize that threat was to encourage border villages and towns to keep such elements away – first by offering humanitarian assistance in the form of food, gasoline, and medical supplies, and then by expanding that help to include the treatment of wounded Syrians. To date some 5,000 Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals.

But Israel has drawn the line at taking in refugees, citing potential security risks and fearing that such a move could set a precedent for letting in refugees from future conflicts on its border.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Tents erected to house Syrian civilians fleeing a government offensive are clustered in Syria near the border of Israeli-held territory on the Golan Heights, July 3, 2018.

Israel’s focus on Iran

But away from the humanitarian drama on its doorstep, Israel’s chief concern as the Syrian war appears to be winding down is with Iran.

The Iranians and their proxies – the Lebanese Hezbollah and other imported Shiite forces – played a leading role supporting Assad’s regime, and Iran’s forces likely will not leave Syria, Israeli experts warn, but will eventually find their way to the border with Israel.

On Sunday, hammering home its zero tolerance of Iran’s presumed aims, Israel reportedly sent its jets to strike Syria’s T4 air base, which is used by Iran. It was one of several such strikes in recent months.

The timing of this latest strike, Israeli military analysts suggested, seemed linked to a scheduled meeting Wednesday in Moscow between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Further punctuating the moment, Israel said that a drone launched from Syria was shot down Wednesday after penetrating several miles into Israeli airspace.

Israel is demanding that Russia, which played a decisive role in turning the tide of Syria’s civil war in support of Assad and is now acting as a power broker in the country, banish Iran from Syria.

Most observers see that demand as unrealistic and think the most Israel can hope to negotiate would be that the Iranians are kept deeper inside Syria.

Israel’s fear, says Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and a senior fellow at the international security program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, is that Iran would be able to launch missiles at Israel from Syria’s border. That would create the possibility of a three-front war along with incoming rocket fire from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

“I am normally the guy saying Israel should cool it, we can take a defensive approach. But this is something [for which] Israel cannot tolerate even the risk,” Mr. Freilich says. In such a conflict, he says, “Israel will be hit in a way never before seen,” with collapsed buildings and clogged roads “because everyone will leave home to get out of range, and there will be no out of range this time unless you go to the southern Negev…. It will be ugly.”

Assaf Orion, a reserve brigadier general and a senior researcher at the International Institute for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, offers a more restrained assessment, saying he does not see “much appetite on any front” for conflict soon. “All of the involved players understand the consequences of a war,” he says, “the grammar of violence is very constrained at the moment.”

The Russia factor

Viewed from Israel, the Syria conflict also plays a role in the complicated relationship between President Trump and Mr. Putin, who can point to Syria to claim he has outmaneuvered the United States, Israel’s main ally.

That reinforces Israel’s interest in courting Putin as it girds for a post-civil-war Syria. While Russia has indicated it will not kick Iran out of Syria, Mr. Orion argues, Moscow has not been a bad address for Israel’s requests.

“In Russia we find a very interesting partner who is attentive to our needs. We can coordinate with them on some issues, although they are not at all a strategic partner like the US is to us,” he says.

That said, if Israel continues to strike Iranian targets in Syria it will test Russia’s patience, warns Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Israel must also determine a path forward with Assad, though Professor Maoz and others surmise that the Syrian leader will have his hands full with rebuilding and consolidating power and that it will take years, if not decades, to rehabilitate the country.

There is no love lost between Israel and Assad. Israel regards him as a war criminal, the man who used chemical weapons on his own people. But he is also the same leader that before and during the civil war kept the border with Israel quiet.

There is something, Moaz allows, to the adage, “Better the devil you know.”

With Syrian patients, in Israel

In the meantime, in the northern Israeli coastal town of Nahariya, the process of fostering new attitudes among Syrians continues.

Five years ago, the first wounded Syrians to wake up in Israeli hospitals were shocked and horrified, doctors recall, having grown up on stories of Israel as a cruel enemy. But later they returned home, in some cases after complicated series of reconstructive surgeries to repair gruesome war wounds, and told friends and neighbors of the excellent treatment they received in Israel, Syrian patients at the hospital say.

Nahariya’s Galilee Medical Center has treated the majority of the Syrian wounded. Thirteen more Syrians arrived last week, all seriously wounded in the most recent round of fighting. The hospital is currently treating 40 Syrian patients.

Eyal Sela, who directs the hospital’s head and neck surgical division, describes the sophisticated work that goes into reconstructive facial surgery.

“It’s a game changer here. We are going to treat anyone who walks into the hospital. We don’t see nationality or religion,” he said at a media briefing. “I am not here to butter you up with clichés, but this is what we do.”

But he admits, there is another force propelling him.

“I do it for my future, for my children,” Dr. Sela says. “If I can change the [attitudes] of the Syrian people, I will do it.”

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