Report: Israel armed rebels in south Syria for years, in effort to block Iran

Fighters tell Foreign Policy the Jewish state provided them with funding and weapons from 2013, but pulled support as Assad’s troops regained control of border area

Syrian rebel fighters sit behind deployed machine guns during a military parade near the southern city of Daraa on June 7, 2018. (Mohamad Abazeed/AFP)
Syrian rebel fighters sit behind deployed machine guns during a military parade near the southern city of Daraa on June 7, 2018. (Mohamad Abazeed/AFP)

Israel 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 its border, Foreign Policy magazine reported Thursday.

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. Israeli leaders have in the past said the Jewish state is not involved in Syria’s internal fighting.

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 two months ago 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 had said in 2013 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.

Last year, Israel significantly increased its support, the report said, moving from backing groups of hundreds of fighters to aiding those with thousands, as part of a more aggressive policy to keep Iran and Iranian-backed forces out of the region.

A few months ago a fighter from the Forsan al-Jolan (the Golan Knights) group told the magazine, “Israel is the only one with interests in the region and a little bit of humanity and [provides] assistance to civilians.”

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)

The magazine reported that Israel’s backing led to an expectation among rebel groups that the Jewish state would intervene to assist them against the regime’s offensive in southern Syria. This led to bitter disappointment when Israel stood on the sidelines as Syrian forces captured areas bordering the Golan Heights this summer.

Once government troops loyal to Assad reached the area, and Israel reached an apparent understanding with Russia to keep Iranian troops away from the border, Jerusalem reportedly cut its funding and refused to offer aid to the rebels seeking to flee from regime forces.

A handful of commanders and their families were reportedly granted asylum, but most rebels who asked for assistance were turned back.

“This is a lesson we will not forget about Israel. It does not care about…the people. It does not care about humanity. All it cares about it its own interests,” the same Forsan al-Jolan fighter said afterwards.

A picture taken on July 4, 2018 from the Golan Heights shows displaced Syrians from the province of Daraa staging a protest (top L) calling for international protection, in the Syrian village of al-Rafid, near the border fence with Israel. (AFP/Jalaa Marey)

Many of the rebels who had expected Israeli intervention to protect them reportedly regretted their reliance on the Jewish state.

“Trust me, Israel will regret its silence over what had happened in southern Syria,” a community leader told Foreign Policy. “We in our town and neighboring towns grudgingly reconciled with the regime, but this reconciliation will affect Israel in the near future.”

Israeli humanitarian aid is prepared for deliver to displaced Syrians fleeing the civil war in Syria, July, 2018. (IDF)

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 than 3,000 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.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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