Global competition hot at Israeli-Syrian border
By TRUDY RUBIN | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: January 22, 2018
Last month I drove along an endless barbed-wire fence on the Golan Heights that defines the Israeli-Syrian border, with the dim sound of artillery booming in the distance. A detour to a rocky hilltop allowed me to look out, under dark clouds, at a Syrian landscape that reflects the new world disorder we face in 2018.
The operative words are complexity and uncertainty, as the Trump team struggles to define a consistent strategy for the Mideast and elsewhere. The new U.S. defense strategy unveiled Friday focuses on great power competition with Russia and China rather than terrorism, while mentioning Iran (and, of course, North Korea).
On the other side of the Golan fence, on Syrian soil, many of those interests are in play; some combination of Russia, the United States, Iran, Israel and jihadi remnants could wind up in a collision.
The spectacularly beautiful Golan Heights region, which directly overlooks northern Israel, was captured from Syria during the 1967 war and annexed in 1981 (though not internationally recognized). For many years, the Golan border was Israel’s most peaceful. Then the chaos of civil war erupted, and the border became home to a string of local Sunni opposition militias, Syrian government forces and a pocket of Islamic State at the southern end.
Almost by accident, Israel began a Good Neighbor policy of providing health care for wounded Syrians from the other side of the fence. “Seven Syrians came to the border in March 2013 and asked to be let in,” I was told by Dr. Noam Fink, chief medical officer of the Israel Defense Force’s Northern Command. Word spread, Israeli medical teams started coming to the border; the more seriously injured were evacuated to hospitals in northern Israel.
The Syrian civil war virtually destroyed medical care in Syrian conflict zones. So Israel also permitted the Louisiana-based U.S. Christian charity Friend Ships to open a clinic last summer right at the border that serves families who cross over daily for chronic or emergency illnesses. It is amazing to look across the fence and see a hut in no-man’s-land where Syrian civilians are checked, then allowed to walk down a path and through a gate into Israel.
Volunteer manager Sheray Morrison, a 66-year-old grandmother of 14 from New York, says 2,500 patients have crossed along with a Syrian doctor who commutes daily. (Volunteer U.S. doctors and dentists come for short visits.) Children are given toys and parents get food packages; piles of stuffed animals and a swing set fill one of the white tents that make up the clinic.
Meantime, 4,000 Syrians have crossed the fence via the Israel Defense Force’s Operation Good Neighbor, including many women and children. Israel has also transferred tons of food, medicines and clothing across to Syria. “We see the gratitude. We’ll continue as long as it is needed,” Fink told me.
However, a large proportion of the injured are young Syrians wounded in fighting. Israeli officials deny Western news reports that they have funded or armed local Sunni militias. But former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made clear in 2015 that medical aid to Sunni rebels was extended on condition that they prevent Islamist fighters from nearing the border.
Now Israel’s border situation has become even more complex.
There has been an upsurge of casualties at the fence in recent weeks as the Syrian regime retakes border towns held by Sunni rebels, including Beit Jinn, across from the northern end of the Golan and near Lebanon. That raises a critical issue for Israel: whether Lebanon’s Hezbollah or other Shiite proxies of Iran will set up bases near the border.
Here is where we see the complexity of the new world disorder in full flower.
Russia and the United States are jockeying for influence in post-ISIS Syria, with Russia far ahead. The Trump team, along with Israel, wants Russia to prevent Iran from setting up permanent bases in Syria that could threaten Israel. One test was whether a “deconfliction” accord between Washington and Moscow would prevent Iran’s Shiite proxies from basing along the Golan border. That accord has not worked.
The Israelis are annoyed, and disappointed with Washington’s deal. They have told the Russians — with whom they are on good terms — that they won’t let Hezbollah build an infrastructure nearby. (Meantime, Israel has been bombing Iranian bases farther inland, presumably with Russian knowledge.)
So across that barbed-wire fence simmers a rich geopolitical stew that may be served cold or hot. Will Russia control its Iranian ally? Will Iran control Hezbollah? If not, will there be a war between Israel and Iran? (Or between America and Turkey on Syria’s northern border?)
And finally, does the Trump team have the heft to affect the outcome? Or is America a spent force? Watch what happens along that Golan fence for clues to all of the above.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.