Refugees and Security: Israel’s Dilemma in Southwest Syria

Israel is bracing for any scenario in the areas just east and southeast of the Golan Heights, as it expects heavy fighting between the Assad regime and rebels in the Dara’a province to continue. Syrian and Russian efforts to recapture this territory from rebel groups and terrorists has caused 270,000 Syrians to flee just since June 19th, the largest single displacement of Syrians since the war began in 2011. Among these internally displaced Syrians, thousands are fleeing to Jordan’s border and Israel’s Golan Heights.

The Syrian-Russian campaign has sent thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to Israel’s border, who have established makeshift camps with little more than what they could carry on a tractor. Most of these new camps are overcrowded, lack fresh water, electricity, access to food, and other basic needs. The IDF, in addition to Israeli citizens in the Golan Heights, have stepped up their efforts to provide these people with humanitarian aid. In a recent overnight operation, the IDF transferred around 60 tons of aid to Syrians across the border, including 300 tents, 30 tons of clothes and shoes, three pallets of medical supplies, 13 tons of food and an additional 15 tons of baby food. Much of this aid comes from American and Israeli NGOS, as well as unidentified Arab states. The IDF also recently took six wounded Syrians (including newly orphaned children) into Israel for crucial medical treatment.

The Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister have stated explicitly that Israel would not open its borders to the displaced Syrians, however it would continue to provide humanitarian aid to civilians when deemed necessary. The Israeli position is like that of Jordan, which, after having accepted around 650,000 refugees throughout the duration of the war, has closed its borders to Syrians.

Israel should increase its material support for the Syrian IDPs along its border. Strategically, it would help change the “hearts and minds” of the Syrian people and their attitudes towards Israel, potentially paving the way for better relations in the future. In addition, it is simply the right thing to do. This belief is shared by Israeli civilians in the Golan Heights, who have launched their own campaign to gather clothes, nonperishable foods, toys, games, and anything else to donate to the Syrians just kilometers away in desperate conditions.

The fighting in and around Dara’a is likely to intensify and create more internally displaced people, and Israel will likely see more people fleeing to its border, setting up camp in the demilitarized United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) zone. This buffer zone between the Israeli-Golan Heights and Syria was established in 1974 following the Yom Kippur War. Israel has been concerned recently with evidence of armed fighters loyal to the Syrian regime occupying an abandoned UN outpost in the demilitarized zone.

Israel must monitor an increase in IDPs establishing camps in the UNDOF zone carefully. Iranian-backed militias are actively participating in the fighting alongside the Syrian Arab Army (helping to create this problem of IDPs fleeing towards Israel), and there is very real risk of these militias, such as Hezbollah, entrenching militarily in the demilitarized UNDOF zone under the guise of internally displaced people seeking refuge.

Northern Dara’a is entirely under regime control, and the fighting is extending to villages to the west like Tafas and Nawa, just 24km and 15km from Israel’s border, respectively. As the fighting continues westward closer to Israel’s border, the likelihood of errant fire landing in Israel from Syria is likely to increase. This is especially true in the ISIS-held city of Tasil and the areas surrounding it, which are on the Golan’s southern border, but with no demilitarized zone to buffer the two. Should the regime eventually push into Tasil and engage ISIS directly, ISIS could provoke Israel to drag it into a conflict with the Syrian army.

The IDF has made clear that any intentional or unintentional fire from Syrian territory into Israel is intolerable, and it would respond in great force. Israel maintains that it will hold the regime responsible for any fire landing in Israel and recently sent armored reinforcements to the Golan Heights. In the event of any stray fire landing in Israel, the IDF should respond forcefully, targeting the Syrian regime. This would signal to Assad that Israel will protect its borders, its citizens, and the Syrian citizens within the disengagement zone. It would also reiterate to Russia Israel’s position that stray fire threatening Israel’s security or the presence of Iranian-backed fighters near Israel will result in harm to the Syrian regime.

The Syrian-Russian campaign to take Dara’a province is posing new challenges to Israel which it has not faced in the previous seven years of the civil war. An operation no more than 20km from Israel’s borders, in part being carried out by Iranian-backed militias, is creating an unprecedented influx of internally displaced Syrians setting up camp within the UNDOF demilitarized zone, who see it as the only safe place from the regime’s bombardments. Israel must continue its “good neighbor” policy and provide life-saving humanitarian aid to these people, while preventing Hezbollah or other Iranian-backed fighters from entrenching near its borders in a new and more covert way. To prevent this from occurring, Israel should request that the UN and international community establish a safe zone in the area, protecting these people from the regime’s advancements as well as the Iranian-backed militias.

About the Author
Daniel Bucksbaum received his BA at Western Michigan University, where he studied political science and Arabic. He specializes in Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs, and has previously written op-ed articles for the Jerusalem Post.
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