Almost 48 years ago today, one of the most bizarre events in the bizarre history of the Middle East took place. The Israeli Air Force took to the skies to prevent a Syrian invasion of Jordan. Both sworn enemies of Israel, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israelis, the Israeli government still protected one Arab neighbor at the expense of another. This would be the equivalent of the Italian Air Force defending London during the German Blitz. With the recent Syrian government offensive in southern Syria, the question must be asked, should Israel once again step in militarily to protect Arabs in an enemy country?
As Jordan relentlessly killed Palestinians during the Black September attacks, the Syrian army sought to intervene. Syria was the major patron of the Palestinian terrorists and didn’t take too kindly to Syria’s southern, Arab, neighbor slaughtering their best weapon against Israel. As Syrian tanks rolled towards the Jordanian border, the only thing that saved Jordan was intervention by its hated neighbor Israel. The IAF took to the skies and scared the Syrians, so fresh off their embarrassment in 1967, thus saving the kingdom from Syrian invasion.
Starting two weeks ago, Syrian government forces, backed by Iranian militias and Russian air power have begun a massive offensive in southwestern Syria. The regime is trying to take back territory in the Daara province bordering Israel and Jordan. For anyone following the conflict it is no secret that the IDF is providing immense amounts of aid to the Syrians fleeing the offensives. That includes Israel taking in 6 orphans yesterday providing emergency medical care.
Not long ago, the Syrians fleeing towards Israel were the same ones taught and claiming that Israel is the enemy. Now, in the words of one refugee, they feel safer being close to the Israeli border, praying that being under the IAF umbrella will deter regime air attacks. But does Israel need to do more?
Israel has the best military in the region, bar none. Israel has the most advanced intelligence capabilities in the region. Israel has the strongest economy in the region. While she may be hesitant to flex her muscle sometimes, it is impossible for her to sit silently as a genocide happens on its northern border. This is the reason for “Operation Good Neighbor” the bringing of aid to besieged Syrians. That said, there is so much more we can be doing.
While Israel cannot unilaterally set up a no-fly zone over Daara, they can set up mini-protectorate areas. Under the protection of the IAF, Syrian attack helicopters and Iranian militias wouldn’t come near the 160,000 displaced Syrians heading to the Israeli border. Syrian troops would be deterred, the Iranian presence on the Golan would be pushed back, and most importantly, hundreds of thousands of Syrians would be saved. And who would be their savior? Israel.
Strategically and tactically, this idea has major benefits. If the Syrians populating the border have a preferable view of Israel, the chances of them allowing Iranian militias to ensconce themselves on the border are diminished immensely. There can be no understanding how big of a strategic victory that would be for Israel, as preventing Iranian expansion into the Golan Heights is one of Israel’s top priorities.
Second, Israel would be massively discrediting the narrative of her in the Arab world. While almost all of the Arab has done nothing but paid lip service to the slaughter in Syria, Israel would be the one protecting hundreds of thousands of Arabs. Israel would be giving security, food, medicine, and hope to hundreds of thousands of Arabs that even the Arab world has shunned. What would that do to the Arab street who only has the terribly misguided idea of Israel as a murderer of Arabs? As Hamas ignores the Syrians being slaughtered, how will it look when Israel is the one to step up and protect them? Would that not make it easier for the Saudis, Bahrainis, Qataris, Egyptians, and Jordanians, to explain increased relations with Israel?
Third and final are the benefits that come from the inevitable Syrian violations of Israel’s self-imposed ‘safe zones.’ When Syria violates them, who will be fair game? Hezbollah, and Iranian militiamen. Targeting them benefits Israel, especially as both the Lebanese and Iranian publics are becoming increasingly mad at their involvement in Syria. Just look at the recent protests sweeping Iran if you need proof that the Iranian public doesn’t want it’s money or son’s going to prop up Assad.
There are drawbacks to this plan. Russia is the main backer of Assad and the Russian Air Force are flying the majority of the missions in southwestern Syria. Israel may have the best Air Force within the region but it has no desire to take on Russia. But that doesn’t mean it is powerless.
Russia wants a speedy end to the war, even if Assad doesn’t control all of pre-war Syria. Russia has too much to gain. If Israel, primarily Netanyahu, can use his close relationship with Putin to explain that a truncated Syria is better than a ‘whole’ Syria at war with Israel, Russia will rein in Assad.
Russia, unfortunately, has reinserted itself into the Middle East in a level unprecedented since the Yom Kippur War. They have established themselves in Syria, and formed allegiances in Turkey and Iran. While that seems to be a problem for Israel on paper it really isn’t. Russia wants one thing. The same thing they’ve wanted since the 1800’s Czarist times; a warm water port. If Israel acquiesced to Russia having a permanent presence in Assad’s new territory in Lattakia or Taurus (which may even benefit Israel by having a restraining influence over Assad), then Russia would have no reason to pick a fight with Israel over wanting to secure southwestern Syria as an Israeli protectorate. The benefit to Russia to have that port far outweighs the benefits of going to war with Israel over Israel’s northwestern border.
Russia and Israel have been operating in the same skies for 7 years with no problem. It isn’t hard to imagine this continuing, but Israel can not be afraid to use its leverage. Bibi and Trump have a close relationship, and that can all be brought to bear to ensure Russian acquiescence to an Israeli-guaranteed safe zone in southern Syria.
Israel has everything to gain and almost nothing to lose by making southern Syria an essential protectorate. Israel will boost its image in the Arab world, prevent Iranian and Hezbollah encroachment in the Golan, and most importantly, do the moral thing of protecting a people in the crosshairs of a murderous dictatorship. Russian hurt feelings can be countered by the Bibi-Putin relationship and strong U.S. backing for the Israeli plan, and without Russia, Assad has no way of forcing the Israelis to back down. Israel has a moral duty, strategic obligation, and historical responsibility to protect the 160,000 Syrians who have fled towards its border, and what better way to achieve all of those than establishing and enforcing a protectorate, or safe zone, in southwestern Syria.