In light of the recent chemical attack by the Assad government on the city of Idlib, Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for the establishment of a buffer zone in southern Syria. This is the latest in Israel’s changing strategy towards the Syrian civil war. For most of the brutal six year civil war, Israel has upheld a “no intervention policy,” but that seemed to change beginning in May 2016.
In May 2016, Israel created a liaison unit modeled after Yakal, the unit Israel used in southern Lebanon in the 1970’s. Leading up to the first Lebanese war, Israel established what was known as the “Good Fence Policy,” where Israel would collaborate with local residents on Lebanon’s side of the border to provide them with humanitarian and logistical support. This led to the creation of the Southern Lebanese Army, a coalition of Lebanese Christian militias that helped pave the way for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to drive out their common enemy in the PLO. A similar scenario seems to be unfolding in southern Syria near Israel’s border.
Just as Israel worked with the Christian militias to fight their common enemy in the PLO, Israel is working with moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to help fight Iranian and Hezbollah fighters and Sunni extremists. Israel also has an incentive for a safe zone to keep their enemies away from their borders.
Given the parallels between Israel’s first war with Lebanon and its position on the Syrian civil war, lessons can be taken from Israel’s Good Fence Policy in southern Lebanon. For instance, perhaps Israel’s biggest mistake in Lebanon was neglecting local grievances, especially in regards to Lebanon’s Shia community.
By persisting their military presence in southern Lebanon and disregarding the Shias’ local grievances, Israel essentially turned potential allies into adversaries. As Trita Parsi describes in his book Treacherous Alliance, “The Shias initially welcomed the Israelis because of their competition with Palestinian refugees for local resources…But the Shias were dismayed when the Israelis overstayed their welcome by creating a ‘security zone’ in the south.” Even Ehud Barak, who was a commander in the war, admitted, “‘When we entered Lebanon…there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence that created Hezbollah.” Therefore, if Israel wants this potential buffer zone in southern Syria to be practical, Israel must take into account the local grievances of the Syrian communities there.
According to the report from Haaretz, Netanyahu did insist that international forces rather than Israel’s secure the buffer zone. This will help keep Iran and Hezbollah out, while not forcing Israel to keep a military presence in Syria and enhancing local grievances, making Israel look like the big bad as they did in southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, even if a buffer zone is established through international forces rather than the IDF, Israel still can and needs to take further steps in regards to local grievances in southern Syria.
Sunni extremist groups, such al-Qaeda-affiliated Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jubhat al-Nursa) and ISIS-affiliated Yarmoukh Martyrs’ Brigades are already near Israel’s Golan, and Israel has responded to some of their attacks across the border. Though these Sunni extremist groups may not pose a near term security threat to Israel, responding to their incursions over time could enhance the local grievances in southern Syria and allow Sunni extremist groups to rally support there just as Hezbollah rallied support among the Shias in southern Lebanon.
This is where Israeli humanitarian organizations can play a role. Under an internationally established security zone in southern Syria, Israeli NGOs may have more accessibility to provide relief and humanitarian aid to Syrians to warm up relations with Israel. As Kamal Al-Labwani, one of prominent Syrian opposition figures with ties to Israel, says, “When Israel helps the Syrian people in the south with aid and medication, they stop looking at Israel as the enemy and a threat. Today the atmosphere is very appropriate to do this.”
Amaliah seems to be the leader in this endeavor. Founded by Moti Kahana, Amaliah has spent the past five years coordinating with Israeli military personnel to send Syrians over through their “bus of angels” to Israel to receive humanitarian aid. However, with a closed border between Israel and Syria, there is little accessibility to send Syrians over to receive the sufficient aid they need. Under a safe zone, Amaliah would have the ability to operate inside the safe zone and have more contact and accessibility to distribute sufficient aid to Syrians.
Israel has faced challenges in the past with safe zones, but taking the lessons learned from Lebanon can allow for the benefits to outweigh the costs today. An international safe zone would free Israel of the burdens of a military presence in a separate country and allow the southern Syrian communities to see Israel, through humanitarianism, as more of a friend than an enemy.