Israel Trying To Find Ways To Bring In Injured Civilians From Syria

Israel’s efforts to help innocent Syrians are not going unnoticed.

Even Vox, a website you could fairly characterize as anti-Israel, is reporting our latest not insignificant act of kindness.

Israel just announced it will take in wounded civilians from Aleppo

Israel has spent years trying to avoid getting sucked into the vicious civil war raging in neighboring Syria. It’s now wading into the conflict in a way you wouldn’t expect.

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he has ordered his government to “find ways” to bring injured civilians from Aleppo, Syria, to Israeli hospitals. That could clear the way for hundreds of Syrians, a country still technically at war with Israel, to cross into the country at the express invitation of a prime minister normally known for his hard-line positions on Iran, the Palestinians, and other issues.

Israel, which shares a long border with the war-torn country, has already treated thousands of both civilians and rebel fighters in field hospitals located right along the border. There has been intense fighting on the Syrian side — including occasional strikes carried out by Israel itself against ISIS targets, such as a strike in late November on a vehicle carrying four operatives from an ISIS-linked group that had opened fire at an Israeli patrol.

One such Israeli-run field hospital, the Ziv Medical Center, has treated more than 2,500 Syrians since 2013, when the civil war began, according to Dr. Salman Zarka, the hospital’s director.

But Netanyahu’s announcement marks the first time Israel has offered to take Syrians wounded on distant battlefields into Israel itself.

“We see the tragedy of terrible suffering of civilians and I’ve asked the Foreign Ministry to seek ways to expand our medical assistance to the civilian casualties of the Syrian tragedy, specifically in Aleppo,” Netanyahu said during a reception for foreign correspondents based in Israel. “It’s being explored as we speak.”

Of course, it being Vox, they add this:

Jerusalem tacitly supports Assad staying in power, preferring “the devil we know” to “the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos, and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there,” in the words of one Israeli intelligence official quoted in the Times of London.

This is not true, despite the supposed words of an anonymous Israeli intelligence official over 3 years ago. This very Vox article seems to even contradict this, when it mentions

Israel, which shares a long border with the war-torn country, has already treated thousands of both civilians and rebel fighters in field hospitals located right along the border.

That is not to say Israel supports the rebels either. It is complicated. If you want to understand better Israel’s policy with regards to Syria, I recommend this article. Excerpt:

The Israeli political and security establishments have been beset by differences over the Syrian war since it first broke out. Prior to the war, a powerful body of opinion within the country’s defense establishment regarded the regime of dictator Bashar Assad as the “weakest link” in an Iran-led regional axis. The hope was that a blow could be dealt to the Iranians by tempting the non-Shia, non-ideological Assad regime away from its alliance with Iran and toward a pro-U.S. stance, mainly through Israeli territorial concessions on the Golan Heights.

These assumptions were among the first casualties of the Syrian war. The support of Iran and Russia was clearly of central importance to the Assad regime. Unlike authoritarian regimes aligned with the West (Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia), the Assad regime was not rapidly abandoned by its patron at the first sign of serious internal unrest. Instead, Iran and Russia mobilized all necessary resources to preserve the regime, leading to the current situation in which Assad’s survival in at least part of Syria seems assured.

With the prospect of “turning” Assad no longer of immediate relevance, and with a coherent pro-American alliance no longer discernible in the region, the Israeli security establishment, like many others, first presumed that the regime’s survival was unlikely. In late 2011, then-Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak predicted that the dictator would fall “within weeks” and welcomed his supposedly imminent departure. “The Assad family and its faithful have killed more than 4,000 people in Syria to date,” he said. “It is impossible to know who will rule Syria in the future, but in any event, it will be a blow to the axis between Iran and Hezbollah.”

However, as Sunni Islamist and jihadi forces rose to prominence in the course of 2012-13, and Iranian and Russian assistance kept Assad in place, a “minority” view emerged. It held that the rise of Salafi jihadist forces among the Syrian rebels meant that the overall victory of the rebellion would not be in Israel’s interest. It further posited that the Sunni Islamists had become the greater danger to Israel. This view failed to win the support of the policymaking elite. The Sunni Islamist threat was recognized, but the primacy of the Iranian threat remained.

The result has been a synthesized view that goes something like this: Iran and its allies, of which the Assad regime in Syria is one, remain the most potent and dangerous threat facing Israel. As such, the primary goal of Israeli policy should be to prevent Iranian gains, and stop Iran and its allies from using the situation in Syria to improve their position against Israel. But given the nature of the rebellion against Assad and the forces dominating it, their victory could also be harmful to Israel. There is a danger that Assad’s fall could produce a Sunni Islamist regime no less hostile than Iran, and perhaps more determined to act on this hostility.

As a result, Israel has no incentive to align with or actively support the rebels. The Israeli establishment’s strong aversion to interfering in internal political processes in neighboring countries – deriving from the institutional “trauma” of the unsuccessful alliance with the Lebanese Christians in the 1980s – has also militated against any overt efforts at backing the rebellion in Syria. Indeed, from a perhaps harsh but realist standpoint, the war itself, and in particular the fragmentation of Syria into rival enclaves, is not necessarily bad for Israel.

Up to now, Israeli policy has been conducted along these lines. What practical form has their implementation taken?

It is an open secret in Israel that the country maintains relations with Sunni rebel elements in the area adjoining the border in Quneitra Province. The reason is to ensure that they remain the dominant force on the border, rather than elements aligned with the Assad regime, Iran, or the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. The Israeli policy of providing medical aid to Syrian civilians and wounded rebel fighters from this area is clearly an aspect of this policy (in addition to purely humanitarian considerations). The precise nature of the assistance afforded the rebels is not known. No evidence, however, has emerged of direct military aid. Given the great efforts to which Israel goes in order to ensure a clear intelligence “picture” of events in southwest Syria, it may be assumed that intelligence sharing probably forms part of the relationship.

The delicate and sensitive nature of such relationships is obvious. But nearly five years into the Syrian civil war, the success of this policy speaks for itself. As of today, with the exception of the small area controlled by Shuhada al-Yarmouk in the south and another small area controlled by the regime in the far north, the greater part of the area abutting the Israeli border is in the hands of non-IS rebels. And these groups, thus far, have not mounted cross-border attacks on Israel. Furthermore, according to media reports, Israel’s influence over the rebels in this area has been used to prevent a small pro-regime enclave in their midst, the Druze village of el-Khader, from being harmed. The fact that the residents of el-Khader are themselves fanatically hostile to Israel adds another layer of irony to this complex reality.

Israeli policy with regard to the Syrian civil war offers an example of modest, pragmatic aims pursued with a notable degree of success. Israel is now the only state bordering Syria that has not suffered major fallout from the war. Iraq and to a lesser extent Lebanon have seen the war erupt on their own soil. Jordan and Turkey have been faced with a wave of refugees and, in the latter case, the return of a Kurdish insurgency. Israel has managed, thus far, to avoid all of this.

As I said, it’s complicated. But what isn’t is Israel’s desire to provide humanitarian aid to the innocents caught in all of it.


David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media