January 17, 2019

Syrian Dilemmas

Simple facts and complicated dilemmas are typical characteristics of the Syrian civil war. 

Simple facts: Many thousands of Syrians are seeking refuge near the Israeli border as they flee the Syrian army’s advance. Syrian President Bashir Assad and his military are making a final push to retake the province of Daraa in southern Syria. Syrian forces are advancing toward the Jordanian and Israeli borders.

Complicated dilemmas: How to deal with the desperate refugees; how to keep Israel from interfering in the Syrian civil war when Assad’s forces post victories; how to keep the Syrian military away from the border and out of the buffer zone; how to do all these things without getting in trouble with Russia; how to rearrange Israeli-Syrian relations when Assad is back where he was more than half a decade ago. 

Earlier this week, Israel deployed a reinforcement of tanks and artillery near the Syria border. In diplomatic lingo, this is called “communicating.” The message, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) stated, was as follows: “The IDF sees great importance in maintaining the armistice agreement between Israel and Syria from 1974.” That is to say: The Syrians cannot violate Israeli territory, they cannot violate the terms of the 44-year armistice agreement — an agreement that kept the Golan Heights border quiet for so long. 

Earlier this week, Israel rushed wounded Syrians to hospitals in the north, some of whom were children. The children’s families had been killed in bombardments. This is a routine that we are all familiar with, and barely think about: Since the beginning of the Syrian war, Israel has treated many wounded civilians. Syrian civilians. Enemy civilians. Last week, Israel also sent a few hundred tents, more than 20 tons of food, including 15 tons of baby food, clothing, footwear and medicine to several locations in southern Syria. 

Denying entrance when refugees knock on the door is not easy.

Israel feels obligated to offer humanitarian assistance to the suffering civilians. The stories of these civilians are heartbreaking. The drawings that their children hand the soldiers —  Syrian children drawing Israel’s flag using crayons — are heartbreaking. But make no mistake, Israel is not ready to absorb any of the refugees. When Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was asked about this on July 3, his response was almost sarcastic: There are so many Sunni states around us, let them offer refuge to their Syrian brethren. 

In fact, this has been Israel’s tactic all along: Define Israel’s interests narrowly but leave no room for mistakes and misunderstandings. Rule No. 1: Israel takes no side in the Syrian war. Rule No. 2: Israel would not tolerate the presence of Iranian forces in Syria. Rule No. 3: Israel would not accept any change to the military status quo ante because of the war. Rule No. 4: Israel would not agree to any violation of its territory, either by the Syrian military or by refuges seeking a shelter. 

Each of these rules represents a tough choice: 

There were people — including Israelis — who believed that Israel must not remain unengaged when hundreds of thousands of people are being butchered on its doorstep — they wanted Israel to intervene. These people have a strong moral argument. Ignoring it was Israel’s choice, but it was not always the obvious choice.

Drawing a red line on Iran was a risky move. It forces Israel to back words with action. It puts it in danger — war could break out. Israel defined its security interest narrowly, but for Israel and Iran, the fight over Syria is no less about prestige and clout than about missiles and tactical maneuvers.

Keeping the status quo is a matter for the future. When Assad puts an end to the war, he will be a changed leader; his reputation will be completely altered, his calculations and obligations different. His plans for the future — well, he did not have much time for planning when he was fighting for survival, so who knows what he plans for Syria’s future? Insisting that he sticks to the status quo is a gamble. What if he doesn’t? What if he says that circumstances have changed and hence a change of the status quo is essential? 

Rule No. 4 is the most difficult, emotionally speaking. Israel cannot be a refuge for people from other countries. It is too small, it has too much to worry about — and it wants to keep its cultural coherence. Still, denying entrance when refugees knock on the door is not easy, one of many acts of maneuvering that a country must commit in a world of simple facts and complicated dilemmas.