While most of the world’s attention has turned to focus on the war against ISIS in Northwest Syria, the civil war in the rest of Syria still rages. Now there’s a report that Israel – still considered a mortal enemy by many sides in the multi-front war – has actually been providing real support to rebels in Syria’s southwest.
It hasn’t been a secret that Israel has regularly taken in wounded fighters and refugees from the civil war in Syria, treated them, then sent them back. But for the first time, Syrian rebels are now explicitly acknowledging Israeli help, according to the Wall Street Journal:
The Israeli army is in regular communication with rebel groups and its assistance includes undisclosed payments to commanders that help pay salaries of fighters and buy ammunition and weapons, according to interviews with about half a dozen Syrian fighters. Israel has established a military unit that oversees the support in Syria—a country that it has been in a state of war with for decades—and set aside a specific budget for the aid, said one person familiar with the Israeli operation.
[...] interviews with half a dozen rebels and three people familiar with Israel’s thinking reveal that the country’s involvement is much deeper and more coordinated than previously known and entails direct funding of opposition fighters near its border for years.
“Israel stood by our side in a heroic way,” said Moatasem al-Golani, spokesman for the rebel group Fursan al-Joulan, or Knights of the Golan. “We wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.”
Israel’s aim is to keep Iran-backed fighters allied to the Syrian regime, such as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, away from the 45-mile stretch of border on the divided Golan Heights, the three people said.
But both sides are playing an incredibly dangerous geopolitical game. And this may get a bit wonky to people unfamiliar with the area, so let’s just start with the map:
In the lower left you can see Israel, Jordan to the East, Lebanon to the north of Israel and west of Syria, and in the top right, Syria, itself. But to better understand the specific situation we’re talking about here, let’s zoom in a bit on the Israeli-Syrian border:
As you can see, in contrast to something like the nice and neat American-Canadian border, the Syrian-Israeli border is a cartographic mess of solid lines, squiggles, dots, and dashes. The tortured result of a series of horrific wars over decades, it doesn’t just situate Israel in the west and Syria in the east. Israel’s portion is largely made up of the Golan Heights, a mostly agrarian plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967.
And between them sits the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone, a nearly 50-mile-long buffer area between the two, patrolled by the UN, meant to keep the two sides from fighting.
But despite the messy lines on a map, the UN observer force, the divided families, the abandoned cities, and the occasional stray artillery shell, the Golan/Syrian border has traditionally been one of Israel’s quietest.
(Though that may be helped by the fact that Damascus lies within range of Israeli artillery, just 37 miles from the border. It helps to not get shelled by the neighbors when you keep the noise down.)
So if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has done his part to keep things in Syria quiet and stable, why start funding a few of the rebels in a multi-front war, featuring the competing militaries of Syria, Iran, Russia, the United States, Iraq, Kurds, Saudi Arabia, and multitudes of militias, ranging vastly in size, scope, and ideology?
It’s hard to say. Maybe Israel really does believe that al-Assad could still fall, and it’s nice to have someone even somewhat-friendly in power. Maybe it wants to just keep Assad tied up, much in the same way Assad has often used overt support of Hezbollah in Lebanon to tie Israel up.
But even if ISIS is eventually defeated, the broader Syrian Civil War isn’t going away quietly.