Israel has been providing Syrian rebels near its border in the Golan Heights with a steady flow of funds, medical supplies and humanitarian assistance, with one group receiving roughly $5,000 per month, according to rebel fighters quoted in a newspaper report.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, citing interviews with half a dozen rebel leaders and three persons familiar Israel’s undeclared policy, that the Jewish state is helping these forces, which are opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian, Lebanese and Russian allies, in an effort to help set up a buffer zone on its border with forces friendly to Israel.
According to the report, Israel set up a special military unit in 2016 to oversee and coordinate the transfer of the aid, which helps the groups pay salaries and buy weapons and ammunition.
This “secret engagement,” as the report calls it, is aimed at strengthening Syrian rebel groups at the expense of forces hostile to Israel, namely Iranian proxy and Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, as well as various Iranian units fighting on Assad’s behalf in Syria.
Israel has dubbed this operation in the Golan Heights the “Good Neighborhood” policy, according to prominent Israeli journalist and analyst Ehud Ya’ari, who noted that it began under former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.
“It’s a matter of interests,” one unnamed person cited in the report said.
“Israel stood by our side in a heroic way,” a spokesman for the rebel group Fursan al-Joulan, or Knights of the Golan, Moatasem al-Golani, told the Journal. “We wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.”
Abu Suhayb, a nom de guerre of the commander who leads the group, told the newspaper he receives approximately $5,000 a month from Israel. According to the report, the group made contact with Israel in 2013 after a raid on regime forces and turned to Israel for help with its wounded. The group said it was a turning point as Israel then began sending funds and aid, assistance soon extended to other groups.
A fighter with another rebel group in the Golan, Liwaa Ousoud al-Rahman, said “most people want to cooperate with Israel.”
Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian civil war, which broke out in March 2011, but has over the years acknowledged that it helps treat wounded Syrians who arrive at its border and provides some of them with humanitarian assistance. It has also claimed a number of airstrikes in Syria it says were meant to prevent arch-foe Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weaponry from Iran via Damascus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly confirmed that Israel was actively working to disrupt Hezbollah’s arms smuggling operations in Syria and build-up of capabilities on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
In response to the Wall Street Journal report, the IDF said Israel was “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.”
Fursan al-Joulan has approximately 400 fighters in Quneitra province in the Syrian Golan Heights and is allied with at least four other rebel groups who also receive Israeli assistance, the fighters told the newspaper. They added that roughly 800 rebel fighters in a dozen villages in the area rely on support from Israel, as do some of the thousands of civilians living there.