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Exclusive: Israel Is Tending to Wounded Syrian Rebels

Israel is quietly cultivating ties with moderate Syrian rebel groups operating along the country’s U.N.-monitored cease-fire line with Syria, providing medical care and other unidentified supplies to the insurgents while potentially extracting a valuable vein of intelligence on the activities of President Bashar al-Assad’s army as well as extremist opposition forces within Syria. In the ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Menahem Kahana/ AFP/Getty Images
Menahem Kahana/ AFP/Getty Images

Israel is quietly cultivating ties with moderate Syrian rebel groups operating along the country’s U.N.-monitored cease-fire line with Syria, providing medical care and other unidentified supplies to the insurgents while potentially extracting a valuable vein of intelligence on the activities of President Bashar al-Assad’s army as well as extremist opposition forces within Syria.

In the past three months, battle-hardened Syrian rebels have transported scores of wounded Syrians across a cease-fire line that has separated Israel from Syria since 1974, according to a 15-page report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the work of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). Once in Israel, they receive medical treatment in a field clinic before being sent back to Syria, where, presumably, some will return to carry on the fight.

U.N. blue helmets responsible for monitoring the decades-old cease-fire report observing armed opposition groups “transferring 89 wounded persons” from Syrian territory into Israel, where they were received by members of the Israel Defense Forces, according to the report. The IDF returned 21 Syrians to armed opposition members back in Syria, including the bodies of two who died.

“Throughout the reporting period, UNDOF frequently observed armed members of the opposition interacting with the IDF across the cease-fire line,” according to the report. “On one occasion UNDOF observed the IDF on the Alpha side [inside Israel] handing over two boxes to armed opposition on the Bravo side [inside Syria].”

U.N. officials worry that rising instability in the cease-fire zone could ultimately threaten the uneasy peace along the Syria-Israel line of separation. Although the cease-fire between Israel and Syria has largely held, Israeli forces on March 18 and 19 fired on Syrian troops, killing two Syrian soldiers and wounding 17 others, marking the “most significant violation” of the truce in its 40-year history. Israel says it fired on the Syrian position in response to the Syrians’ placement of an improvised explosive device that injured four Israeli soldiers, one seriously.

“The ongoing military activities in the area of separation continue to have the potential to heighten tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic and to jeopardize the cease-fire between the two countries, in addition to heightening the risk to United Nations personnel,” Ban wrote. “I call on the government of the Syrian Arab Republic to stop the use of airstrikes, which cause suffering to the civilian population,” Ban wrote. “I also once again condemn the horrific atrocities committed by some armed members of the opposition.”

The Israeli government has been providing medical assistance to Syria’s wounded for more than a year. In February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to a military field hospital in the Golan Heights in a tour aimed at contrasting Israel’s humanitarianism with that of Iran, one of Syria’s military backers, claiming it was arming, financing, and training Syrian forces responsible for killing and wounding Syrian civilians.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the IDF, said the Israeli government has provided medical assistance to more than 1,000 Syrians over the past 14 months. “We give medical aid to people who are in dire need,” he said in a telephone interview. “We don’t do any vetting or check where they are from or which group they are fighting for, or whether they are civilians.”

Lerner said that Israeli forces have a kind of “gentleman’s agreement” with Syrians across the border to alert Israeli forces that they intend to deliver their wounded. But he said that Israel’s cooperation with Syrians is strictly medical and humanitarian. “The Israeli policy of noninvolvement in Syria is what binds us,” he said. “Our primary mission is to defend the border from potential spillover of the civil war into Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights.”

Ehud Yaari, an Israeli fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on the Golan Heights, said that Israel is supplying Syrian villages with medicines, heaters, and other humanitarian supplies. The assistance, he said, has benefited civilians and insurgents.

“The wounded are both fighters and civilians but there are not too many civilians left because of the fighting raging there,” he said. “Close to 900 Syrians have been treated in Israel, so you should assume the operation is going flawlessly. It would be not wrong to assume there is some sort of coordination going on with the armed rebels on the ground.”

The Israeli assistance is only a single piece of a broader international effort, including by the United States, to lend support to so-called local Syrian opposition groups in southern Syria fighting forces loyal to Assad. The United States, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other governments are coordinating military support out of a joint operations center in Amman, Jordan. In a recent address to cadets at West Point Military Academy, President Obama pledged that the U.S. would step up its help. “I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator.”

The primary goal of international assistance, according to Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma, has shifted from toppling the regime to undercutting the influence of extremist jihadist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, and the powerful Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, whose fighters recently crossed into Iraq and abruptly conquered Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. The West is also trying to create a “buffer zone” that prevents Syria-based extremists from taking up positions along the border with Israel and Jordan.

“They are worried about jihadists on their border and they want to know what’s going on,” said Landis. The “quid pro quo,” he said, is that if the less radical rebels want guns and other forms of assistance, “they have to cleanse the jihadists from this border zone.”

Still, Landis cautioned that the al-Nusra Front is continuing to gain strength in southern Syria. “This is the trouble with the American strategy of helping the moderates,” he said. “You can’t see anywhere where it is really working because the moderates are being pushed aside.”

Yaari challenges that account, noting that Syria’s local insurgents remain the dominant force along the border; and although the al-Nusra Front has made inroads, its southern-based fighters are mostly drawn from the local community, not recruited from foreign jihadi networks. He also said there is little evidence that the United States is active in the area. “What has happened in northeastern Syria, north of Damascus, has not been repeated in the south,” Yaari said, referring to the predominance of extremist jihadists. “You may ask yourself whether Jordanian and Israeli activities have contributed to that. Israel and Jordan would not like al Qaeda to establish itself on their borders.”

The U.N. mission was established in 1974 along a narrow strip of the Golan Heights to monitor a truce between Israel and Syria. The once-sleepy mission — comprising 1,251 Fijian, Filipino, Indian, Irish, Nepalese, and Dutch peacekeepers — has regularly taken fire since the Syrian civil war began.

Under the terms that ended the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syrian and Israeli forces are prohibited from operating along a narrow strip of territory known as the separation zone. Since the start of the civil war, Syrian rebel groups have flooded into the area, giving them a safe haven close to Israel. But the Syrian government has contested t
he area for well more than a year, bringing in tanks and other heavy weapons and, recently, carrying out airstrikes in rebel-controlled areas.

“On numerous occasions during periods of fighting between the Syrian armed forces and armed members of the opposition, rounds landed inside or in close proximity to the United Nations positions, at times forcing United Nations personnel to take shelter,” according to the report. In April and May, Syrian tank artillery landed just outside a U.N. compound, in one case striking the perimeter fence. Syrian authorities are unwilling to clear the delivery of high-tech equipment designed to neutralize improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The equipment, which could improve safety for blue helmets, is in Beirut awaiting customs clearance.

The United States, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel reportedly channeled their assistance to local Syrian rebel groups — including the newly constituted Southern Front — viewing them as less radical than the al-Nusra Front or ISIS. But U.N. officials say that some of the groups have fired on U.N. peacekeepers and even laid IEDs near roads traveled by U.N. peacekeepers. One U.N. official said militants who fired on Irish peacekeepers said they thought the blue helmets were actually Russian fighters supporting Assad’s government, even though there are no Russian peacekeepers in the mission. Scholar Edmund Burke wrote in the Irish Times that the attacks were more extensive. The report claims that Western-backed groups, including the Yarmouk Brigade, are coordinating military attacks with the al-Nusra Front, underscoring the degree to which so-called “moderates” and “extremists” can be indistinguishable on the battlefield.

The U.N. blue helmets have been harassed by the rebels before. In March 2013, a local rebel group, the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigade, kidnapped 21 peacekeepers, claiming that they were aiding the Syrian government. “It remains critical that countries with influence continue to strongly convey to the armed opposition groups in the UNDOF area of operation the need to halt all activities that endanger U.N. peacekeepers on the ground, including firing at peacekeepers,” the report states.

Some 400 armed opposition fighters, backed by artillery fire from three tanks, seized a Syrian military outpost atop a hill at Tal al-Garbi, planting four black flags and raising concern that extremist groups are moving into the zone.

More than two weeks later, opposition fighters captured two other strategically important hilltop military outposts in Tal al-Jabiya and Tal al-Sharqi.

“In the afternoon of 24 April, two members of the armed opposition displayed the severed head of a presumed Syrian armed forces officer as they passed” a U.N. outpost, according to the report. By the end of April, U.N. observers “detected the flying of black flags believed to be associated with militant groups scattered throughout the central and southern part of the area of separation, including three Syrian armed forces positions captured by the armed members of the opposition.”

This story has been updated.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch