Thursday, January 4, 2018

The old Syria returns, sooner than expected - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

The situation is very fluid and at least for now, does not bode well.

Just one month ago, Israel was implored to defend the Syrian Druze village of Hader, close to the border with the Israeli Golan Heights, against an attack from Syrian rebels. Israel protected Hader because of its obvious and even righteous duty toward its own Druze citizens. It was an act of grace, as the village remains loyal to the regime in Damascus and in recent years has even produced Hezbollah-run terrorist cells to attack Israel.

Last week, however, the tide was turned in southern Syria. The regime's forces, along with – rather led by – Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard contingent, unleashed an offensive and managed to conquer considerable swathes of the Syrian Golan, at the center of which sits the previously rebel-held town of Beit Jan. The insurgents there chose to surrender. Some of them were evacuated to rebel-controlled Idlib province in northern Syria, while others chose to join the regime's forces and embrace [sic].

What happened in the area is a precursor to what will likely happen across all of southern Syria and along the Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights. The security zone Israel established along the border in southern Syria appears destined to go the way of the security zone it held in southern Lebanon, which collapsed emphatically in 2000.

In recent years, Israel invested hundreds of millions of shekels in humanitarian aid for insurgent groups on the other side of the fence. It did this to ensure quiet in the area. Relations with the rebels bred hopes, or rather illusions, that Israel could fundamentally change the way the locals feel about the Jewish state and turn them into friends and even long-term allies. It now appears that what the locals will most remember is not the medical aid Israel provided them, but the fact that in the moment of truth, with the Syrian regime advancing toward their villages, Israel stood watching from the sidelines and left them to their fates.

The Syrian regime and its allies' campaign to retake the Golan Heights sector is a violation of the understandings reached by the United States and Russia just a month ago. This agreement, which focuses on establishing a buffer zone (or safe zone) in southern Syria, promised relative protection and immunity for the rebel groups. Agreements and reality, however, are nothing alike, certainly in this part of the world.

The Americans signed the agreement in the naive belief that the other side accepts that agreements must be honored. It's also possible that similar to past cases, they simply sought a public relations boon to paint them in a positive light as caring for their allies. In actuality, all they wanted was a way out of the Syrian quagmire, even if it meant handing Syria over to the Russians, or worse – to the Iranians.

Russia, as we know, honors agreements only when they align with its interests. Moscow has no compunction signing a deal and the next day violating or simply ignoring it. The Assad regime and its allies are unconcerned with such agreements, which are merely another aspect of their deceitful ploy of speaking yearningly about peace while on the ground continuing the fighting, using tactics to divide and conquer with threats and alliances and ultimately restore full control to Damascus.

Israel was right to refrain from establishing a military presence on Syrian soil. But the collapse of the security zone in southern Syria is not the only issue: Crumbling along with it is the assumption that the war in Syria will go on for years, and that Syria will never resemble its old self. It appears the old Syria has returned to our border quicker than we expected, more dangerous and more imposing than before. This is due to the presence of Hezbollah and Iran, which the world, and certainly Russia, views as a stabilizing and positive factor that should remain for the foreseeable future.

Prof. Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Department of Middle East History at Tel Aviv University


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