IDF delivers aid to displaced Syrians as rebels surrender to Assad

Army says food, fuel, tents delivered; assistance comes just before opposition hands over heavy weapons, government forces return to area in country’s southwest

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

Israeli troops prepare to deliver tons of food and other humanitarian aid to southern Syria in July 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli troops prepare to deliver tons of food and other humanitarian aid to southern Syria in July 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli military oversaw the transfer of tons of food, thousands of liters of fuel, dozens of tents and medical equipment to the war-torn Syrian southwest over the past week, the military said Thursday, as dictator Bashar Assad’s forces bombarded the remaining opposition groups in the area and reportedly forced them to surrender.

“Over the past week, the 210th ‘Bashan’ Division led six special operations in a number of locations, in which humanitarian aid was transferred to Syrians in tent cities on the [Syrian] Golan Heights,” the army said in a statement.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, these shipments included: 72 tons of food, 70 tents, 9,000 liters of fuel, medicine and medical equipment, clothing and toys.

The military reiterated that Israel would continue to provide aid to the tens of thousands of displaced Syrians who have set up overflowing, under-resourced tent cities along the border, “which lack access to water, electricity, food sources and basic necessities,” but would not allow refugees to cross the border.

Israel has been providing humanitarian aid and medical care to Syrians living in the Quneitra and Daraa provinces in the country’s southwest since 2013. This practice stepped up and became formalized in 2016 under an IDF program known as Operation Good Neighbor. The full extent of the project was only revealed a year after it was founded.

These transfers of humanitarian aid and acceptance of injured Syrians into Israeli hospitals have stepped up in recent weeks, since the Assad regime’s offensive began on June 19, according to Israeli officials.

Israel has thus far treated some 5,000 Syrians, most of them injured in the civil war but also some with unrelated medical conditions, in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals, mostly in northern Israel.

Israel also worked with international aid organizations to open a clinic along the border in 2017. Since its opening last year, the clinic has treated some 6,000 additional Syrian patients.

In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, an IDF soldier feeds a Syrian baby in Israel as part of the army’s humanitarian aid program to assist Syrians impacted by the civil war in their country. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition, Israel has insisted that Syria abide by the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement, reached following the Yom Kippur War the year before, which established a demilitarized zone along the border between the two countries. Syria is still formally at war with Israel.

Though the purpose of this demilitarized zone was to prevent further clashes between the two countries Israel has also, by calling for a strict adherence to the ceasefire agreement, established a de facto safe zone where fleeing Syrians can be spared from the Assad regime’s offensive to some degree.

On Tuesday, approximately 200 Syrians who were displaced by the recent onslaught approached the Israeli border, some of them waving white flags, in an apparent effort to get assistance from the Jewish state.

Soldiers used bullhorns to tell them to back away from the fence.

“Go back before something bad happens. If you want us to be able to help you, go back,” an Israeli officer told the crowd in Arabic, according to Reuters. “Get a move on.”

An IDF spokesperson said this was due to concerns that they were approaching a live minefield near the border.

Syrians, displaced by fighting in the country’s southwest, approach the border fence between Syria and Israel the Syrian village of Bariqu in the southern province of Quneitra, on July 17, 2018 (AFP /JALAA MAREY)

On Thursday, Syrian rebels agreed with Russia, which supports the Assad regime, to the negotiated surrender of the Quneitra province, which lies along the border with Israel, a monitor said.

Rebels have held most of the province and the buffer zone for years but would hand over their territory as part of the surrender deal, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The deal provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons, and the return of government institutions to the area,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Syrian police forces would take over current opposition territory in the buffer zone, he told AFP.

Smoke plumes rising from reported Syrian and Russian airstrikes across the border in Syria’s southeastern Quneitra province, as seen from the Israeli Golan Heights, July 16, 2018. (JALAA MAREY/AFP)

Those who refuse the terms of the agreement would be granted safe passage to opposition territory in northern Syria, he added.

A member of the rebel delegation to the talks confirmed to AFP that a deal had been reached for government forces to enter the buffer zone but said it was unclear when it would be implemented.

State news agency SANA said it had preliminary information on a deal for the army to return to its pre-2011 positions in the area, but did not provide more details.

The deal, according to the Observatory, does not include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist-led alliance that holds territory straddling the provinces of Quneitra and neighboring Daraa.

Israel is reportedly in talks with Russia for arrangements in the border area to return to demarcation lines drawn up in 1974, specifically to keep Iranian forces and Iran-backed militias out of the area.

Both the United States and Israel are also worried about Iran’s growing military presence in Syria, where it has provided crucial aid to Assad’s forces. Russia, another key backer of Assad, has reportedly agreed to remove Iranian troops from the border region but allow them to remain in other parts of Syria.

Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria that could threaten the Jewish state.

Russia has warned it was unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country, but there have been signs of an emerging compromise between Moscow and Jerusalem on the issue. Senior Israeli officials say Russia is working to prevent Iran from entrenching its military along Israel’s northern border with Syria, according to Hebrew media reports.

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