Daniel Nisman Headshot

Israel's Last Good Fence

Posted: Updated:
Print

Lately, Israel has increasingly added its voice to the international chorus of concern over the Syrian al-Qaeda threat. Last week, an 'unnamed Israeli official' was quoted by various media outlets claiming that jihadis fighting in the conflict had mushroomed from 2,000 to 30,000 in just two years. Just days later, at the prestigious Institute for National Security Studies annual conference, IDF intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi displayed a map showing al-Qaeda gains in Syria, including three operating bases in southern Turkey, from which they have easy access to Europe.

Indeed, it was only a matter of time before the Jewish state broke its silence over the jihadist contamination of a conflict which otherwise promised to bring its fiercest enemies, Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and Iran, to their knees.

On the surface, Israel's concerns may seem encouraging to other actors seeking to paint a black-and-white picture of the Syrian conflict to either legitimize support for Assad or to backtrack on previous policies calling for his ousting.

Despite these mounting extremist threats, however, Israel remains only country bordering Syria to have never engaged in hostilities with Syrian jihadist or moderate rebels alike. This is not to suggest that the motivation of hardcore jihadists to destroy the Jewish state has depleted on any level, quite the opposite. Foreign jihadists from as far away as Iraq and Chechniya have been spotted on numerous occasions in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, while groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, routinely boast of their intentions to liberate Jerusalem after Damascus. Israel also routinely monitors and arrests members of its Arab minority who are suspected of having entered Syria to take up arms, as part of similar concerns held by Western nations that these men may become radicalized and return home to commit attacks.

These developments may seem as worrying as they are predictable, particularly as the southern half of the Israeli-Syrian border has been controlled by rebels ever since the partial withdrawal of UNDOF peacekeepers in the spring of 2013. And yet, IDF troops have never fired a shot toward these supposedly hostile rebels. Of the more than 10 cross border incidents to have occurred since 2012, all Israeli fire has been directed toward Syrian military positions, primarily with the use of particularly accurate Tammuz missiles. During a major rebel attempt to capture the sole Syrian-Israeli border crossing in Quneitra in June 2013, Israel sent a warning through UN mediators -- not to the rebels, but to the Assad regime to remove its tanks from the demilitarized zone or be fired upon.

Needless to say, these are not the actions of a military seeking to combat the Syrian rebels, or even reduce their influence. They are the result of a tacit and carefully managed realist policy aimed at maintaining an alliance between the most unlikely partners. Those truly interested in replacing a regime that is systematically bombarding, starving, and even gassing its own people should take note.

Ever since it became clear that the Syrian army would eventually lose control of the Golan Heights, Israel sought out new partners amongst the local population in the country's southern Quneitra and Daraa Provinces, including in traditional Sunni, Bedouin, and Druze villages who years prior considered the Jewish State as their sworn enemy. Ehud Yaari, a top Israeli analyst on Arab affairs wrote in a recent policy analysis that this strategy bears a striking resemblance to Israel's alliances with Christian and Shiite communities in southern Lebanon during the 1970s who each mutually opposed the infiltration of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. During the opening acts of the Lebanese Civil War, these ties had become so warm, that the border between Israel and Lebanon became known to Israelis as "The Good Fence."

Weary not to become fully embroiled in another sectarian civil war, Israel took a far more tacit approach to courting revolting villages across the border in Syria. In February 2013, the IDF established a field hospital in the Golan Heights while already admitting dozens of sick or wounded men, women, children, and elderly. In total, more than 600 combatants and civilians alike have been treated in these hospitals, the majority secretly returning to Syria to tell their communities of Israeli hospitality. These exchanges have kept lines of communication open between bands of local rebels, communal elders, and Israel's powerful military, leading to understandings which have ensured that each side recognizes the other's stance in the conflict.

The Israeli intelligence community knows full well that in their case, good fences may not always make for good neighbors, but risks being taken to aid moderate rebel villages, rather than combat them, are paying off in security. Jihadists from outside of the region have routinely attempted to entrench themselves in the Syrian Golan, only to be warned by local village elders away from turning their guns toward Israel. For these communities, preserving peace with Israel is ultimately more beneficial than carrying out irrational and ideologically motivated violence.

For now, Israel's Syria policy represents a minor success in a conflict fueled by policy failures and inconsistencies on the part of the international community. Even more tragically, these border communities are not a minority, but a slice of Syria's traditionally moderate society which had no choice but to rush into the arms of radical influences after it became clear that the Assad regime would be able to gun down peaceful demonstrations with impunity. Now, as Bashar drags his feet on chemical weapons disarmament, reneges on pledges to lift sieges on starving communities, and mercilessly drops barrel bombs on apartment blocks, it is time for the international community to reconsider which policies truly prevent the spread of extremism, and which ones don't.