A Syrian rebel group operating along the Israeli border in the Golan Heights said it has no quarrel with Israel, and that its fight is with President Bashar Assad, not the Jewish state — and it will remain that way.
Speaking with The Times of Israel by telephone in Arabic, a spokesperson for the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade — the militia that kidnapped UN peacekeepers in March and May — said, “We are only here to fight Assad; we want nothing from Israel and we want Israel to know this.”
Laeth Horan’s overarching message to Israel throughout the conversation was one of nonbelligerence, surprising considering the group’s overt Islamist agenda. Analysts, however, were split over whether the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and other Sunni Free Syrian Army outfits would really bury the hatchet with Israel.
“There is nothing between us and Israel. We only have demands of Assad, even after the war,” Horan said. “The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade has no international aspirations; we are only in conflict with the Assad regime.”
He said that despite his group’s proximity to the Israeli border and the contested Golan Heights, which Israel has held since the 1967 Six Day War, there “is nothing between us and them” and wouldn’t be, “even in 10 years’ time.”
Earlier in June, an unnamed spokesperson for a Syrian rebel group operating near the Turkish border told Israel Radio that his group “hopes for peace and security with Israel after the downfall of the Assad regime,” but that it doesn’t want Israel to interfere in the revolution.
The best weapon Israel can grant the rebels is its recognition of the justness of their cause, the Syrian rebel told correspondent Eran Singer.
Horan, in his conversation with The Times of Israel, went so far as to offer rare praise for Israel’s efforts to provide medical assistance for Syrians injured near the border with Israel in clashes between Assad forces and rebels.
“The medical help that the refugees got from Israel is a very good thing,” he said.
To date, Israel has admitted over two dozen Syrians into its hospitals for treatment, and the IDF has set up a field hospital on the border for treating relatively minor cases. During June 6 clashes between Syrian rebels and Assad forces at the Quneitra border crossing, the IDF treated 20 Syrian rebel combatants for injuries suffered during the gunfight, according to a recently published UN secretary-general’s report.
Horan said his group operates in the area girded in the west by the Israel-Syria border; in the south by the Jordan-Syria border and the Yarmouk River, from which it takes its name; and the city of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began two years ago.
He denied the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade’s involvement in an attack on the Quneitra border crossing between Syria and Israel, and said he was unaware which rebel group was responsible.
A Syrian rebel group captured the Quneitra crossing on June 6, and reportedly inflicted “heavy losses” on government troops holding the crossing and were able to destroy four tanks. Assad forces then rallied and drove the rebels back. Some of the fighting took place a mere 200 meters from Israeli territory.
Regarding his group’s kidnapping of UN personnel and unlawful confiscation of their vehicles on multiple occasions in the past several months, Horan said it was done in order to safeguard the peacekeepers from Assad forces. He admitted the UN’s armored vehicles and trucks were in the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade’s possession — albeit briefly. He claimed they were destroyed by the Syrian army.
Syria analysts reacted to the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade’s statements with varied responses. Professor (emeritus) Moshe Maoz of the Hebrew University said that their statements were likely sincere and that, like other rebel groups, they may be willing to strike a compromise with Israel after the fall of Assad.
Maoz contended that Israel should covertly assist “mainstream” Sunni rebel groups of the same stripe as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade against the government through humanitarian aid, so as to encourage a partnership in a post-Assad era. In a recent article in the Haaretz daily, Maoz wrote that Israel “should publicly express support for the Free Syrian Army and the civil leadership of the mainstream Muslim rebels, both secular and religious (including the Muslim Brotherhood).
“In this way Israel would signal to the Sunni rebels and countries that it wants to join a regional strategic alliance, which will act to topple the Assad regime and will also weaken Iran and Hezbollah,” Maoz wrote.
Speaking with The Times of Israel, Maoz dismissed the threat radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra may pose in a post-Assad Syria, noting that “by and large they’re foreigners,” and that their aspiration of a pan-Islamic state incorporating Syria is “not the agenda of most Syrians.”
Syria analyst Aymenn al-Tamimi, the Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum, in contrast, said he was skeptical of the sincerity of the protestations of nonbelligerence.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade may exhibit a “mainstream” blend of Free Syrian Army and Sunni Islam traits, but it has also demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and has “accused the ‘Israeli enemy’ of acts of provocation and aggression from the ‘occupied Golan’ against their territory,” Tamimi noted.
Although their expressed priority is getting rid of Assad loyalists, “if the regime falls or is driven out of Daraa, there is no way they could ignore the Golan issue,” Tamimi added.
“The vast majority of Arab Syrians at the very least don’t want Israel to exist, so I wouldn’t take it as sincere,” he said of the spokesman’s comments. “It’s probably directed to Western audiences,” Tamimi said.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit reacted to the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade’s statements by saying, “The Syrian civil war is an internal issue. Israel is not involved in this conflict, but the IDF is naturally prepared for any eventuality.”
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