Assad’s army is moving south. In recent weeks, elite forces that led offensives such as the capture of Eastern Ghouta have been massing at the edges of rebel-held areas in Quneitra and Daraa. These frontlines have been quiet ever since the United States, Russia and Jordan agreed to establish a de-escalation zone there in early July 2017. Last week, the Syrian army resumed its attacks against the southern rebel areas, while holding out the offer of so-called “reconciliation” – which the rebels reject as surrender by a different name. This week the U.S. signalled passivity: it told southern rebels they should not expect U.S. military intervention and it has declined to throw its weight behind negotiations for a deal in southern Syria. But the offensive hasn’t started in earnest, so there still may be a small window for a negotiated deal, and Israel should persuade Washington to come on board.
The looming escalation forces Israel to make crucial choices with high stakes. Israel views the prospect of hundreds of armed Hezbollah fighters, possibly accompanied by other Iranian-backed militias, participating in “liberating” the south west as imperilling its security. Indeed, it could prompt Israeli strikes at the advancing forces to try to prevent militias from entrenching themselves in the retaken area. Dislodging them afterwards would likely require a ground incursion that could prove impossible politically and, even if possible, costly militarily. Worse, a direct ground intervention in the Syrian conflict comes with a high risk of escalation that may spill over into regional conflict.
Hence, last month Israel’s defence establishment shifted to high gear in engaging with Russia, Damascus’s main backer, to flag its precise concerns in anticipation of a Syrian offensive. Russia is aware that if it were to keep Iranian-backed forces out of the offensive and deploy a sizable Russian contingent, the risk of Israeli intervention would decrease significantly. Moscow seeks to avoid scenarios severely harming its Syrian ally, as occurred on 10 May, when Israel took out many of Syria’s air defences in response to a missile attack against the Israeli-occupied Golan. Were Russia to shape the offensive in this manner, it would address immediate Israeli security concerns, even if it is not clear for how long Russia will be capable, or willing, to keep Iran-aligned forces away from the armistice line.
Yet Israel also should have reason to try to mitigate the offensive’s likely massive humanitarian repercussions. Thousands of Syrians, fearing a repetition of Eastern Ghouta bloodbath, already are moving toward Jordan and Israel. The populations in northern Jordan and southern Syria are connected by tribal and family links, and tens of thousands of desperate refugees could be pushing against the border. The Kingdom might seek to forcefully prevent them from breaking the Jordanian-Syrian fence, but this would come at a heavy human and political price. Either way, the situation in Hashemite Jordan, whose stability is an Israeli strategic priority, could become more precarious.
Extreme scenarios, such as Syrians who seek rescue from the carnage trying to climb the fence, are also possible at the armistice line in the Golan. Tens of thousands fled during the war to makeshift camps immediately near the Israeli fence, hoping the UN buffer zone would offer them protection. Israel provided them care to bolster opposition to the regime and its Iranian allies, and supported some of the armed groups in the area, who did their share to keep pro-Iranian groups at a distance. Arguably, it has acquired some ethical responsibility for these people along the way. As thousands more arrive from Deraa, Israel will realistically welcome only a token number and can therefore best protect this population through a negotiated deal for the south west.
Given Moscow’s cooperation, Israel and Jordan can probably withstand the repercussions of a brutal army offensive in southern Syria. But even as the offensive is now underway, there is more Israel can do to protect itself, its Jordanian ally, and residents of southern Syria across the fence.
At minimum, Israel should support Jordanian efforts to mediate a deal between southern rebels and Russia; push the Russians bilaterally for preferential “reconciliation” terms for Syrians in Quneitra, including a promise of amnesty for the armed groups Israel backed; and seek clarity with its Syrian partners, including encouraging them to engage flexibly and constructively in negotiations with Russia or Damascus. More forgiving, negotiated terms would encourage more rebels to accept a deal over making a last stand, limiting the bloodshed and its negative knock-on effects on Israel and Jordan. What’s more, Israeli security interests would be better served if Israel were able to make a plausible case to future potential allies that it acted diplomatically to protectthose who had cooperated with it.
Israel should however try first a better, more ambitious alternative: throwing its weight behind a negotiated deal. Such a deal would need to include the restoration of the Syrian state apparatus across still unconquered southwestern areas, granting appreciable local autonomy; a Russian-Israeli understanding regarding a sizable buffer zone, parallel to the Golan armistice line, free of Iranian-linked forces; the Syrian military redeploying at Syria’s borders; and restoring the 1974 Israel-Syria Separation of Forces Agreement, along with the full redeployment of UNDOF.
To maximize such gains in local autonomy and Iran-related guarantees, Israel should lean on the U.S. to support such a solution. An American stamp of approval may well be the decisive prize that sways the Kremlin to halt the offensive and pursue a wider deal for the south west, since it implies a tacit acceptance of Russia’s Syria strategy. For some in Washington that may look like a bridge too far, but for the sake of Israeli security interests, the White House might be willing to give it a try.
Ofer Zalzberg, Senior Analyst, Israel/Palestine.
Originally published in The Times of Israel