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Inside Israel’s Secret Program to Back Syrian Rebels

Fighters were armed and paid to keep Iranian-linked forces away from Israel’s border.

Israeli soldiers near the Syrian border in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights on May 10. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli soldiers near the Syrian border in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights on May 10. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel secretly armed and funded at least 12 rebel groups in southern Syria that helped prevent Iran-backed fighters and militants of the Islamic State from taking up positions near the Israeli border in recent years, according to more than two dozen commanders and rank-and-file members of these groups.

The military transfers, which ended in July of this year, included assault rifles, machine guns, mortar launchers and transport vehicles. Israeli security agencies delivered the weapons through three gates connecting the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria—the same crossings Israel used to deliver humanitarian aid to residents of southern Syria suffering from years of civil war.

Israel also provided salaries to rebel fighters, paying each one about $75 a month, and supplied additional money the groups used to buy arms on the Syrian black market, according to the rebels and local journalists.

The payments, along with the service Israel was getting in return, created an expectation among the rebels that Israel would intercede if troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad tried to advance on southern Syria.

When regime forces backed by Russian air power did precisely that this past summer, Israel did not intervene, leaving the rebel groups feeling betrayed.

“This is a lesson we will not forget about Israel. It does not care about … the people. It does not care about humanity. All it cares about it its own interests,” said Y., a fighter from one of the groups, Forsan al-Jolan.

Israel has tried to keep its relationship with the groups a secret. Though some publications have reported on it, the interviews Foreign Policy conducted with militia members for this story provide the most detailed account yet of Israel’s support for the groups. All the fighters spoke on the condition that their names and factions not be revealed.

The quantity of arms and money Israel transferred to the groups—comprising thousands of fighters—is small compared to the amounts provided by other countries involved in the 7-year-old civil war, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States. Even at the height of the Israeli assistance program earlier this year, rebel commanders complained that it was insufficient.

But the assistance is significant for several reasons. It marks one more way Israel has been trying to prevent Iran from entrenching its position in Syria—alongside airstrikes on Iranian encampments and political pressure Israel brought to bear via Russia, the main power broker in Syria.

It also raises questions about the balance of power in Syria as the civil war there finally winds down. With the Iranian forces that helped Assad defeat the rebels showing no inclination to withdraw from Syria, the potential for the country to become a flash point between Israel and Iran looms large.

A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment for this story.

Israel began arming rebel groups aligned with the Free Syrian Army in 2013, including factions in Quneitra, Daraa, and the southern areas of the Damascus countryside. The arms transferred at the time were mostly U.S.-manufactured M16 assault rifles. Later, Israel switched to providing the rebels with mostly non-American weapons—apparently to conceal the source of the assistance—including guns and ammunition originating in an Iranian shipment to the Lebanese Hezbollah group that Israel had seized in 2009.

The assistance to these groups remained steady for some time, but it expanded significantly last year. Israel went from supporting hundreds of fighters to reaching groups comprising thousands of rebels. The increase in assistance coincided with a broader shift in Israel’s policies in Syria. After appeals to the U.S. administration and the Kremlin failed to secure a deal that would ensure that Iranian-backed militias would be kept away from southern Syria, Israel adopted a more aggressive policy.

Its Air Force began striking deeper inside Syrian territory, targeting not just individual weapons shipments from Iran to Hezbollah but also Iranian bases across the country.

Two of the groups Israel supported have been publicly identified—Forsan al-Jolan (the Golan Knights), a faction based in the border town of Jubata al-Khashab in Quneitra, and Liwaa Omar bin al-Khattab, based in Beit Jinn, a town bordering Mount Hermon.

Unlike other foreign supporters of the Syrian opposition, Israel made little effort to organize and consolidate its aid program. Instead, it apparently relied on relationships it developed with individual commanders, funneling assistance directly to them.

According to rebels in southern Syria, these commanders would communicate with Israeli officials by phone and occasionally meet them face to face in the Israeli-occupied Golan. When commanders switched groups and locations, Israeli assistance followed them. On the other hand, when commanders were killed or removed from their position due to internal power struggles, Israeli assistance to their former factions was halted.

Forsan al-Jolan was Israel’s preferred group. Last year, it added several hundred fighters to its ranks due to an increase in Israeli financing, according to members of the faction. It also served as a distributor of weaponry supplied from Israel to other groups. This allowed the group to have an outsized influence both in Quneitra and the nearby Daraa governorate.

Israel also provided fire support to rebel factions fighting the local Islamic State affiliate in the Yarmouk Basin. According to local rebels, journalists, and residents, Israel carried out drone strikes targeting Islamic State commanders and precision-missile strikes against the group’s personnel, fortifications, and vehicles during battles with the rebels. Israel did not extend similar fire support for rebel assaults on regime forces.

As a result of Israel’s humanitarian and military assistance many residents of southern Syria came to perceive it as an ally. Israeli publicized its “Good Neighbor” program in Arabic, including humanitarian operations in southern Syria and treatment of some Syrians in Israeli hospitals.

Y., the Forsan al-Jolan fighter, told me a few months ago: “Israel is the only one with interests in the region and a little bit of humanity and [provides] assistance to civilians.”

But as troops loyal to Assad, aided by Russian and Iranian forces, reasserted control over more and more areas of Syria, Israel sought other ways to guarantee its interests along the border.

In July of this year, Israeli officials apparently reached an understanding with Russia that allowed for the return of regime forces to western Daraa and Quneitra, the areas adjacent to the Golan Heights. In exchange, Russia reportedly promised to keep Iran-backed militias 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) from the Golan Heights and not to start hindering Israeli strikes on Iranian targets across Syria.

Even after Assad’s offensive on southern Syria commenced, many Syrians in the area clung to hope that Israel would at least prevent the regime from recapturing the adjacent Quneitra governorate. Thousands of people fled to the area abutting the Golan Heights, but Israel did not intervene to protect them.

One local community leader from western Daraa who agreed to be identified only as Abu Khaled said he soon realized that relying on Israel had been a mistake.

“Trust me, Israel will regret its silence over what had happened in southern Syria. We in our town and neighboring towns grudgingly reconciled with the regime, but this reconciliation will affect Israel in the near future,” he said.

As the regime was closing in, some of the rebels reached out to their Israeli contacts and asked for asylum, fearing retribution from Assad’s forces. Israeli officials responded by allowing a small number of rebel commanders and their immediate family members to enter Israel on the night of July 22. Others were turned away.

The whereabouts of these commanders and their relatives remains unclear. According to people in Syria, some are rumored to be in Israel, others in Jordan. One former commander informed his subordinates that he had arrived in Turkey.

As for the rank-and-file fighters, most chose to remain in their homes and surrender to the regime rather than flee to Idlib, the last remaining enclave of the rebel forces. Some have been arrested, apparently for working with Israel, while others joined pro-regime militias or the Syrian Army itself as a way to avoid persecution by the regime.

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a journalist and research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank. @Elizrael

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