By doing more to help Syrian refugees along the border, Israel has the opportunity to do the right thing while advancing its long-term interests
Winning over the hearts and minds of people is an axiom that has assumed a negative connotation largely as a result of its association with so-called nation-building, which, on the whole, has not served the United States well given its military quagmires in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, there exists a small window of opportunity for Israel to use its extensive experience and expertise in disaster-response to adopt elements of the policy in the case of tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the onslaught by pro-Assad forces aiming to retake rebel-held areas along the frontier.
While the Israeli military made clear over the weekend that opening up the Jewish state’s borders to those displaced by the current fighting is a non-starter for reasons including the inability to sufficiently vet them, the IDF nevertheless has for the past two years been providing humanitarian assistance to civilians on the Syrian Golan Heights as part of Operation Good neighbor. It is also well-known that Israel has over the course of the war admitted thousands of Syrians into the country for medical treatment before returning them home.
Amid the latest humanitarian crisis, the IDF has increased its efforts, delivering hundreds of shelters along with tons of food and medical supplies to those in need. While admirable, the current level of support is inadequate according to Israeli-Druze parliamentarian Saleh Saad, who called for even more creative solutions, including the creation a completely new border town; this, out of a conviction that Israel “cannot remain indifferent” to the suffering of innocents.
Obviously, the logistical difficulties associated with carrying out a major humanitarian project in what effectively constitutes enemy lands are tremendous. And there is also the matter of ensuring the security of Israeli personnel, both military and otherwise, while thereafter protecting the Syrian residents. But the obstacles should not be insurmountable.
In fact, Israel is renowned for creating makeshift “cities” in response to humanitarian crises in such distant places as Haiti, in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, as well as in Japan, following the Fukushima nuclear meltdown a year later. Clearly, it should be possible to organize a similar venture directly adjacent to the border.
Although the Assad regime is liable to view any move as a violation of Syrian sovereignty, should the initiative be backed by Russia—which is facing a public relations nightmare due to its role in creating the crisis—coupled with sufficient international support, this would likely provide enough diplomatic cover for Israel to undertake a project. Moreover, from a strategic point of view, the benefits of doing so would appear to outweigh the risks.
First, supporting the refugees would greatly limit the possibility that they could at some point be mobilized en masse to storm Israel’s borders, no mere hypothetical given previous experiences along the Lebanese border and when viewed against the backdrop of the Hamas-initiated “March of Return” protests in the Gaza Strip.
Additionally, when Assad manages to retake the region, Syrians who have been helped by Israel hopefully will return home having assumed a more sympathetic view of the Jewish state, and, perhaps more importantly, a negative perception of Damascus and its Shiite allies, foremost Iran and its Hizbullah underling.
Syrians who will have experienced first-hand the ramifications of Tehran’s tyrannical regional adventurism are liable to understand, if not tacitly support Israel’s refusal to allow the Islamic Republic to gain a permanent foothold in the country. If those living along Israel’s border oppose Iran’s presence there, this would go a long way towards cutting off at least one of Tehran’s tentacles in the nation. Given that the United States currently controls much of eastern Syria through its Kurdish allies, and Turkey has a firm grip on parts of the northwest, this could force the Iranians to limit the scope of their military build-up to central Syria. This, in turn, would be a huge coup for Israel as the IDF could then concentrate its counter-terrorism operations in a smaller geographical zone.
To facilitate matters, Israel also has the option of working under the auspices of Jordan, a cooperation that would enhance bilateral ties between the two countries. More broadly, any initiative to assist the mainly Arab Syrian refugees would serve to reinforce the growing alliance between the Jewish state and regional Sunni countries, who themselves might even take a pro-active role.
Lastly, any Israeli undertaking of this magnitude would, indirectly, strengthen its claim to its part of the Golan Heights. One would be harder-pressed to reject Jerusalem’s position if it were to shine a global spotlight on the juxtaposition between the stability on the Israeli side as opposed to the carnage on the other.
True, there are many inherent dangers, including the very real possibility of Israel being drawn further into a conflict it wants no part of. As such, the matter needs to be carefully considered by both the political and military establishments.
They should make a determination post-haste while keeping in mind that beating hearts are at stake.
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