(February 14, 2018 / JNS) Despite working for several years with international and regional partners to limit Hezbollah and Iranian gains at the expense of the Syrian people—and investing considerable diplomatic capital on trying to convince its allies to abandon or revise the Iran deal, which rewarded Iran while helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad destroy his country—the Israeli government appears low on fresh diplomatic options.
In the big picture, Israel needs to realize that the key military power on the ground in Syria is Russia—a Russia that’s not interested in stopping Iran, limiting Shi’ite militias in Syria or rejecting the deal. The United States is also probably not interested in conducting a major ground war against Iranian-allied forces in Syria. Nevertheless, Israel should not lose sight of the local situation on its borders, where hundreds of thousands of refugees and citizens live with very few resources seven years into the Syrian civil war.
Militias loyal to the Assad regime took over the rebel-held Beit Jann area this past December following a series of victories last year that were often aided by Iranian-allied militias. This area on the slopes of Mount Hermon lies to the northeast of the Druze village of Hadar, which is fiercely loyal to the regime and sits on the edge of the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria. In other parts of southern Syria, there has largely been a stalemate with neither the regime nor the rebels able to completely overtake each other’s territory.
Israel actually has little leverage on the military side due to a longstanding commitment not to get directly involved in the civil war. Yet its “Operation Good Neighbor”—run by the Israel Defense Forces’ 210th division since 2016 in partnership with a number of international aid organizations—has managed to provide hundreds of tons of food, baby formula, medicine, cooking oil and heating oil, as well electricity generators and even doctors, to civilians in the rebel-held areas of bordering towns just over the Syrian side of the zone. This project is making a significantly positive impact, and word of its success is spreading from person to person.
In light of this, Israel should double its already significant humanitarian goals in southern Syria, where it has a long-term interest in maintaining good relations with the people on the ground. That includes the local Druze communities, who currently fear having open relations with Israel.
Arguably, a sound way to limit Iranian influence in southern Syria is to continue to send the strong message that Israel represents the most beneficial partner over the long haul.
Joel Parker is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.