Earlier, when discussing why the Syrian “rebels” fighting Assad are in “turmoil”, we said that as a result of the ongoing Qatar crisis the various Saudi and Qatari supply chains supporting the rebels, both in terms of weapons and funding, had dried up due to the diplomatic fallout involving Qatar and Saudi Arabia. “Together with Turkey and the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been major sponsors of the insurgency, arming an array of groups that have been fighting to topple Syria’s Iran-backed president.”
We concluded that “the rebellion against Assad now seems moot, which is why the most likely outcome is a continued phase-out of support for forces fighting the Syria government until eventually the situation reverts back to its pre-2011 “status quo.”
That, however, may have been premature as it was missing a key piece of data, one which was just revealed by the WSJ and which many had suspected. According to the Journal, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been alligned from the onset of the Syrian conflict, “with Israel supplying Syrian rebels near its border with cash as well as food, fuel and medical supplies for years, a secret engagement in the enemy country’s civil war aimed at carving out a buffer zone populated by friendly forces.”
The Israeli army is in regular communication with rebel groups and its assistance includes undisclosed payments to commanders that help pay salaries of fighters and buy ammunition and weapons, according to interviews with about half a dozen Syrian fighters. Israel has established a military unit that oversees the support in Syria—a country that it has been in a state of war with for decades—and set aside a specific budget for the aid, said one person familiar with the Israeli operation.
This news comes as a major surprise because while it was well known that Israel has provided medical help for Syrian civilians and fighters inside its own borders in the past, with the IDF retaliating to occasional stray rockets in the restive border region with reprisals, it was previously thought that the Israeli authorities largely stay out of the complicated six-year-old conflict next door.
That now appears to have been dead wrong. “Israel stood by our side in a heroic way,” said Moatasem al-Golani, spokesman for the rebel group Fursan al-Joulan, or Knights of the Golan. “We wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.”
Al-Joulan is the main rebel group coordinating with Israel, according to fighters. It told the WSJ that Israel’s support began as early as 2013 under former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, with the goal of creating a ‘buffer zone’ free of radical militants such as Isis and Iranian-allied forces along Israel’s border. A special Israeli army unit was created to oversee the costly aid operation, the WSJ reported, which gives Fursan al-Joulan – Knights of the Golan – an estimated $5,000 (£3,900) a month. The group of around 400 fighters receives no direct support from Western rebel backers, and is not affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the official rebel umbrella organisation.
The Journal also reports that Israel may be funding up to four other rebel groups which have Western backing. The groups use the cash to pay fighters and buy ammunition.
In total, there are roughly 800 rebel fighters across more than a dozen villages in this area, where thousands of civilians live, fighters said. Many of the rebels and civilians in this area rely on some level of support from Israel, they added.
“Most people want to cooperate with Israel,” said a fighter with rebel group Liwaa Ousoud al-Rahman, also fighting on the Golan.
The alliance reportedly began after wounded Fursan al-Joulan fighters made their way to the border and begged Israeli soldiers for medical assistance.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office did not respond to the Journal’s requests for comment, the Israel Defence Forces said in a statement that it is “committed to securing the borders of Israel and preventing the establishment of terror cells and hostile forces… in addition to providing humanitarian aid to the Syrians living in the area.”
Israel and Syria have technically been in a state of warfare for decades. Syria controls around one third of the Golan Heights border, and Israel occupies the rest.
In recent years, Israeli air strikes in Syrian territory have aimed to prevent weapons smuggling to Iranian-allied Hezbollah, which fights alongside the Assad government. Hezbollah, like Iran, is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.
Ironically, while Assad has in the past claimed – correctly it now turns out – that Israel supports rebel groups which his government refers to as terrorists, elements of the opposition have accused Israel of helping to keep the regime in power. The biggest irony, of course, is that virtually for the entire duration of the Syrian conflict, Israel and Saudi Arabia were aligned on the same side against the Assad regime; it also means that one can now also add Israel to the ungodly proxy war in Syria alongside Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US, Europe and most Arab states across from Iran, Turkey, Russia and, increasingly, China.
Today’s revelation may also explain why ISIS has rarely if ever launched attacks against Israeli citizens or on Israel territory.
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Courtesy of the WSJ, here is a chronology of Israeli involvement in the Syrian proxy war:
- 2011:Syrian uprising against Iran-backed President Bashar al-Assad begins.
- 2012: Syrian rebel group the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which has a presence in the divided Golan Heights near Israel’s border, forms and later declares allegiance to Islamic State. It then joins with other groups to form the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, an offshoot of Islamic State.
- 2013: Israel acknowledges it is treating Syrians wounded in the war in hospitals near the border. Secretly, the military begins to build a relationship with rebel commanders on the Syrian side of the Golan and starts sending aid.
- January 2015: An alleged Israeli airstrike kills Hezbollah militants and a general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps near Quneitra province in the Golan Heights. Israel later says the militants were planning to attack Israelis.
- June 2015: Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon says Israel is helping Syrian rebels with medical treatment in return for assurances they won’t attack the Druse—a religious minority group that straddles the Israeli and Syrian sides of the Golan.
- September 2015: Russia enters the war on the side of the Assad regime, tipping the balance of power in favor of the Iran-backed president.
- December 2015: Lebanese Hezbollah militant Samir Kuntar dies in an alleged Israeli airstrike in Damascus suburb. Israeli officials later say he was planning attacks against Israel from the Syrian side of the Golan.
- 2016: Israel secretly sets up an army unit and budget to manage relationship with rebels and civilians on the Golan Heights, say people familiar with the policy.
- November 2016: An Israeli airstrike kills four Khalid ibn al-Walid militants in Syrian Golan after Israeli soldiers come under fire.
- March 2017: Israeli warplanes carry out airstrikes inside Syria, drawing fire from antiaircraft missiles in the most intense military exchange between the two countries since the start of the Syrian conflict.
- June 2017: Syrian rebels say they have been receiving cash from Israel for the past four years that they use to help pay salaries of fighters and buy ammunition and weapons.