As Assad Drives Rebels from Southwestern Syria, What Are Israel’s Obligations to Recipients of Its Aid There?

June 28, 2018 | Eran Lerman and Nir Boms
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This week, Bashar al-Assad’s forces, along with those of his allies, began an offensive in the southwestern part of Syria in violation of the “deconfliction zone” established there by Russia and the U.S. If the offensive succeeds, it will bring Iran-backed troops, including Hizballah, right up to the Israeli and Jordanian borders. The territory under assault, moreover, is now held by rebel groups to whom Jerusalem has been providing humanitarian and occasionally even military aid. Eran Lerman and Nir Boms consider Israel’s obligations to these allies:

The relevant question is not whether Israel has a formal obligation to assist [these rebel groups]. These are informal arrangements formed over the course of years and originating in the immediate needs of residents of the region adjacent to the border. Nevertheless, their fate carries ethical, symbolic, and strategic significance. The ramifications of what could happen go beyond the ethical [dimension] and could determine the extent to which Israel is perceived—both in its immediate strategic environment and in the international arena—as a country whose commitment can be relied upon. . . .

Israel may not be able to stem the tide of the assault on the rebel forces in the south. But it would at least be fitting for it to take responsibility and determine the fate of those who have acted on its side and with its assistance. There are ways (even by means of conducting a dialogue through the Russians) of seeing to the welfare of the rebels who consented to work with [Israel] during the past five years and to the properties that might be left behind, including clinics, hospitals, rescue teams, and orphanages. If [necessary], Israel must see to . . . the evacuation of people who might be made an example of for collaborating with it. . . .

Israel must also prepare for a situation in which Syrian refugees and rebels march on the border fence out of fear for their lives (as was the case with the South Lebanon Army in 2000).

Taking this responsibility is not just a moral [obligation]—it is also a political imperative which would have a considerable effect on a fluctuating Middle East, which is examining Israel’s course of action and slowly [reconsidering its attitudes]. Israel must continue doing the right thing, even if doing so involves complex difficulties of implementation.

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