The regime of Bashar Assad has gone from holding 20 percent to more than 60 percent of what was originally Syria in the past two years, mostly under the guise of various cease-fire, de-escalation and reconciliation deals. Such deals have been complete with relentless bombing campaigns, long sieges that have caused massive human suffering and duping the world into thinking that the rebels were all terrorists, leading to the forced transfer of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from southern and central Syria to Idlib near Turkey.
In the south, the rebels are cornered in the Deraa-Quneitra areas adjacent to the armistice zone of the Israeli-held Golan. The regime is desperate to return this area, even hinting via Russian mediators that Israeli non-interference in its plan might come in exchange for Assad keeping his Iranian-backed allies out of this sensitive area that technically disputed territory without final borders.
Yet Israel does not appear to realize that giving up on its humanitarian and military goals in southern Syria should be done on its terms. Assad has basically sold the future of his Syria to the Iranians and the Russians in the form of long-term deals to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and housing, while selling off any natural resources that might remain. Considering that, Assad cannot really stop Iran from gaining access to the Golan. So, is Israel planning on just handing over all the good will it has gained there among the local populations through the “Good Neighbor” humanitarian program and cooperation with mainly Sunni groups over the past six years?
Israel would be irresponsible to allow a regime that has forcibly transferred hundreds of thousands of people in 2018 alone to have free access the vulnerable communities of the Golan where there are four significant camps for internally displaced persons. In addition, Israel spends NIS 27 million a year to de-mine the Golan Heights because Syria never recognized Israel, and has been technically at war with the country from day one.
This project only began in 2011, when 11-year-old Daniel Yuval lost his leg to a landmine in 2010 while walking in the snow. The potential costs of allowing Assad’s brutal regime to enter the Golan after more than 500,000 people have died in a war that he could have ended years ago, and which is far from over, are incalculable.
Thanks in significant part to the IDF’s “Good Neighbor” policies, the civilians in Quneitra, as well as Dera’a, have received medical and food supplies. In return, the militants have often helped provide intelligence and have also fought against mutual enemies: namely, the forces of Lebanese Hezbollah and other groups tied to Iran, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
While the path forward may involve certain compromises with the Assad regime for the sake of Syria’s civilian population, controlled and yet firm Israeli military projection might hold regime forces at bay until the conflict moves closer to a general political solution that is desperately needed for the millions of Syrians living in limbo around the region and in Europe.
Joel D. Parker, lecturer and research fellow specializing in Syria and Lebanon at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.