Israel armed and provided funding for Syria-based rebel groups battling against ISIS and Iran proxy Hezbollah, according to published reports.
At least 12 rebel groups operating in southern Syria were given cash and munitions in order to fight Iran-sponsored insurgents who were affiliated with the Islamic State in order to prevent them from becoming entrenched near the occupied Golan Heights, Foreign Policy reported.
Testimony from more than 20 commanders said that Israel supplied weapons and funding through “Operation Good Neighbor,” which was begun in 2016 and shut down in July of this year after the Assad regime managed to regain control of the Syrian portion of the Golan Heights. The objective was to keep Hezbollah and Iranian forces well away from the Israeli border.
The weapons Israel provided “included assault rifles, machine guns, mortar launchers and transport vehicles.” The money went to pay fighters — about $75 a month — and allowed rebel factions to purchase additional weapons on the Syrian black market.
There was an expectation among the rebel groups that, if Assad decided to advance on the Golan Heights, Israel would intervene directly to stop it. But when Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, decided to do just that earlier this summer, Israel did not move to intervene directly. That left the rebel factions feeling betrayed.
Said one: “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.”
Israel had sought to keep its operation secret, though in the past there has been some media reporting on the effort. The Foreign Policy report provides the most detailed accounting yet of the operation and the extent of Israeli involvement.
The Israelis began providing weapons to the Free Syrian Army in 2013 consisting primarily of U.S.-made M-16 rifles. Later, to conceal its involvement, Israel switched to Eastern Bloc weapons that it had seized from Iran during an attempted shipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2009.
Assistance was steady for a number of years but expanded greatly last year.
As Syrian forces closed in, some rebel group commanders requested asylum in Israel. Some were allowed in with their immediate families, while others were not. As for the rebel fighters, many chose not to travel to Idlib, the final stronghold now under attack by Syrian forces supported by Russian warplanes, and others either joined pro-regime militias or the Syrian army to avoid persecution.
Analysis: The fighter who is upset that Israel pursued its own interests should not have been surprised by that. Nations do that all the time in order to advance their interests and, in the case of the Jewish state, survive. Israel remains a country beseiged by enemies, and Iran continues to press its advantages in Syria and beyond, via direct involvement and through its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah.
It makes sense that Israel would lend its support covertly and indirectly. Though Israel has been conducting airstrikes in Syria against regime and Iranian targets for the past couple of years, using its own proxy forces alleviated the need for Israeli forces to intervene directly in a very complicated conflict that includes two nuclear-armed great powers, Russia and the U.S.
Israel does not seek conflict, rather, Israeli seeks security, and that is a different thing altogether. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said frequently he will do whatever is necessary to protect his country. He would rather be able to conduct operations short of war, though he would no doubt engage in full-scale combat, including invading neighbors, if he believed it was necessary for the survival of his country.
The Syrian civil war may drawing to a close soon as the last of the rebel factions is eliminated. We expect sporadic fighting to continue in some pockets around the country. But just because the civil war ends doesn’t mean the danger for Israel goes away. Iran has made substantial inroads into Syria during the conflict, providing weapons, personnel and other support to Assad. The Syrian leader owes Tehran (and Moscow); we don’t see him chasing Iranian forces out anytime soon.
As long as Iranian forces are in proximity to Israel, the latter will (rightly) feel threatened and, at times, be forced to act.