IDF chief finally acknowledges that Israel supplied weapons to Syrian rebels

In interview with UK’s Sunday Times, outgoing army commander Gadi Eisenkot says Israel gave opposition groups light arms ‘for self-defense’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Syrian rebel fighters from the Quneitra province walk with their rifles as they wait at the Morek crossing point to be transfered in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo on July 21, 2018. (AFP Photo/Aaref Watad)
Syrian rebel fighters from the Quneitra province walk with their rifles as they wait at the Morek crossing point to be transfered in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo on July 21, 2018. (AFP Photo/Aaref Watad)

Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot this weekend acknowledged for the first time that Israel had indeed provided weaponry to Syrian rebel groups in the Golan Heights during the country’s seven-year civil war.

Until Sunday, Israel would say officially only that it had given humanitarian aid to Syrian opposition groups across the border, while denying or refusing to comment on reports that it had supplied them with arms as well.

In an interview in the British Sunday Times, before ending his tenure as chief of staff this week, Eisenkot said that Israel had indeed provided light weapons to the rebel groups along the border, saying it was “for self-defense.”

Israel’s supply of weapons to these opposition groups has been reported for years — both by the Syrian army, looking to discredit the rebels as stooges of the Zionists, and by the opposition groups, interested in expanding their cooperation with Israel in the fight against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad — but was never confirmed by Israeli officials.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on January 2, 2018. (FLASH90)

Eisenkot’s acknowledgment in the Sunday Times appeared to be part of a larger movement within the Israeli military and defense establishment to be more open about the IDF’s activities against Iran in Syria.

As the outgoing army chief conducts departing interviews with Israeli and international outlets, more and more previously classified information about the IDF’s fight against Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria has emerged.

In his media appearances, Eisenkot acknowledged that the IDF carried out hundreds of raids in Syria — in some interviews, the number given is 200, in others its 400 — and dropped 2,000 bombs on Iranian targets in 2018 alone.

“We carried out thousands of attacks [in recent years] without taking responsibility and without asking for credit,” the army chief told the Sunday Times.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also dropped the policy of “general acknowledgement, specific ambiguity” in Syria, under which Israel says that it does carry out operations in Syria, without claiming individual strikes.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said the IDF had bombed Iranian weapons caches in Damascus International Airport two days prior.

However, the acknowledgment of Israel’s support for rebel groups in Syria was highly irregular as, for years Israeli officials repeatedly declared that the country was not getting involved in Syria’s internal fighting — now evidently a lie, in light of Eisenkot’s remarks.

But while the topic of support for opposition groups went undisclosed within the Jewish state, news outlets abroad reported on the issue freely.

Last September, Foreign Policy magazine reported that Israel had covertly provided arms and funds to at least 12 Syrian rebel groups in order to prevent Iran-backed forces and Islamic State jihadists from setting up shop along the border.

The report, citing interviews with numerous rebel figures, said Israeli support included paying rebel fighters a salary of some $75 a month and providing groups with weapons and other materials.

Israel did not comment on the report at the time.

Foreign Policy said that Israel’s support for the rebel groups began in 2013, funding groups in places such as Quneitra and Daraa. It ended this summer as the regime’s forces advanced and made increasing gains in southern Syria against rebels. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops regained control of the border area in July.

The Syrian army said in 2013 that it had seized Israeli weapons in rebel hands.

The report said Israel sent the rebel groups weapons that included assault rifles, machine guns, mortar launchers, and vehicles. It initially sent the rebels US-made M16 rifles that would not identify Jerusalem as the source, and later began supplying guns and ammo from an Iranian shipment to Lebanon’s Hezbollah group that Israel captured in 2009, according to Foreign Policy.

The report noted that Israel’s total support was small compared to the funding and backing the groups received from other interested parties including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States.

Although it has never commented on military aid to the rebels, Israel last year revealed the scope of its humanitarian assistance in Syria that included treating chronically ill children who had no access to hospitals, building clinics in Syria, and supplying hundreds of tons of food, medicines, and clothes to war-ravaged villages across the border.

Israel initially responded by providing medical treatment to Syrians wounded in the war, treating more thousands of people in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals, mostly in northern Israel, since 2013.

But the army revealed that, since June 2016, it had quietly been working on Operation Good Neighbor, a massive multi-faceted humanitarian relief operation, to keep starvation away from the thousands of Syrians who live along the border and provide basic medical treatment to those who could not access it in Syria because of the war.

The program ended this summer with Assad’s return to the border area.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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