IDF chief visits Golan Heights as masses of Syrians flee to the area

Israel reportedly working with UN forces to set up safe zones near the border to protect the tens of thousands displaced by dictator Assad’s renewed offensive

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

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, center, head of the Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, right, and the head of Military Intelligence's Research Division Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom hear a briefing on the fighting in southern Syria, during a visit along the Syrian border on July 4, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, center, head of the Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, right, and the head of Military Intelligence's Research Division Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom hear a briefing on the fighting in southern Syria, during a visit along the Syrian border on July 4, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot and other top military officers traveled to the Israel-Syria border on Wednesday to hear updated assessments from soldiers in the field about the battle raging next door between Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s forces and rebel groups in the Daraa province, the army said.

“During the visit, the IDF chief of staff held a situational assessment about the fighting in Syria and the preparedness of the Northern Command,” the army said in a statement.

Last month, Assad and his Russian allies launched a renewed offensive against rebel holdouts in the country’s southwest. Bombing raids by the Russian and Syrian air forces, along with a ground offensive, have resulted in dozens of deaths and the displacement of over a quarter of a million Syrians, according to UN assessments.

Tens of thousands of displaced Syrians have made their way toward the Israeli Golan Heights, settling in overflowing, under-resourced tent cities near the border. In some cases, the displaced person camps are located some 100 meters from the security fence, clearly visible from Israel.

A picture taken on June 30, 2018 from the Israeli Golan Heights shows a view of a camp for displaced Syrians near the Syrian village of Burayqah in the southern province of Quneitra. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

The Walla news site on Wednesday reported that Israel was quietly working with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, which is meant to keep the peace between Israel and Syria, in order to set up “safe zones” near the border where Syrian civilians can be spared the Assad regime’s onslaught.

Israel, which has technically been at war with Syria since 1948, has offered humanitarian assistance to residents of the country’s southwest, including taking in injured Syrians for medical treatment, but has repeatedly stated that it will not allow refugees to cross the border.

Israeli army medics provide care to an injured Syrian child who was brought into Israel for medical treatment on June 29, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The IDF is tracking what is happening in Syria and is prepared for a variety of scenarios in order to protect the security situation along the border. The IDF will continue to provide humanitarian aid to residents of the area in Syrian territory, and will also prevent the entrance of refugees into the territory of the State of Israel,” the army said Wednesday.

During this trip, Eisenkot heard from the head of the Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, and Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher, who commands the 210th Bashan Division, which guards the Syrian border.

Head of the IDF’s 210th Bashan Division Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher speaks to the IDF chief of staff and other top officers on the fighting in southern Syria, showing them a map of the area, during a briefing along the Syrian border on July 4, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

He was joined on his visit by the head of the IDF Operations Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, the head of the IDF Planning Directorate Maj. Gen. Amir Abulafiya and the head of the Military Intelligence’s Research Division Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom.

Eisenkot visited the United States this week on an official work trip, in part to discuss the recent developments in southern Syria as well as Iran’s military entrenchment in the war-torn country.

The US, Russia and Jordan are said to be in negotiations over the fate of the largely rebel-held Daraa and Quneitra provinces of southern Syria. Since the start of Assad’s offensive, a number of towns in Daraa have surrendered, while others have rebuffed offers for so-called “reconciliation” and vowed to fight.

The UN Security Council was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the Syrian army’s offensive against rebel groups in southern Syria that has forced some 300,000 people to flee toward the Jordanian and Israeli borders, diplomats said.

Sweden, which holds the rotating Security Council presidency, requested the closed-door meeting along with Kuwait, Swedish diplomats said Tuesday.

Illutrative: Smoke rises above a rebel-held town east of the city of Daraa during airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on June 30, 2018. (Mohamad Abazeed/AFP)

The United Nations estimates that between 270,000 and 330,000 Syrians have fled since the bombings began in the southwestern province of Daraa on June 19.

For Thursday’s meeting, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs will report to the 15 Council members about the humanitarian situation in Daraa.

Displaced Syrians from the Daraa province fleeing shelling by pro-government forces gather to receive aid food in a makeshift camp near the Jordanian border and the town of Nasib, southern Syria, on July 2, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Mohamad Abazeed)

The increased violence “indicates yet another failure by the parties of the conflict to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure,” Sweden’s UN mission said.

“Efforts must be intensified to de-escalate violence, also to enable the UN cross-border convoy from Jordan that is on standby at the border to deploy as soon as possible.”

Jordan and Israel have said their borders would remain closed, even as tens of thousands of Syrians have fled the government offensive.

Jordan, which has recorded some 650,000 Syrian refugees to the UN on its soil, says it can no longer accept more. It too has provided some humanitarian aid to the displaced Syrians.

Syrians displaced by government forces’ bombardment in the southern Daraa province countryside drive near the town of Shayyah, south of the city of Daraa, towards the border area between the Israeli-occupied Golan heights and Syria on June 29, 2018. (AFP/Mohamad Abazeed)

“Intense air and ground-based strikes have reportedly continued in multiple areas in Syria’s Daraa Governorate, resulting in the death and injury of civilians and the largest displacement in the area since the conflict began,” UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.

“The situation of internally displaced people at the Jordanian border is precarious, aggravated by dusty desert winds and high temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).”

He pointed to local reports of at least 12 children, two women and one elderly man who have died near the Jordanian border from scorpion bites, dehydration and disease spread through contaminated water.

Haq said the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had urged Jordan to open its border and for other countries in the region to welcome the civilian refugees.

More than 350,000 people have been killed since Syria’s brutal civil war began in 2011, with millions more displaced. All international calls to halt the offensive in Daraa have so far fallen on deaf ears.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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