AnalysisHow might this all end? Perhaps via rebel action against the president

Assad is starving Palestinians to death in a Syrian camp, and nobody cares

150,000 used to live in Yarmouk, now there are 20,000; Israel worries about the Golan, where Islamists control much of the border area

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinians are evacuated from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, on February 2, 2014. (UNRWA/AFP)
Palestinians are evacuated from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, on February 2, 2014. (UNRWA/AFP)

It’s been three years since the civil war broke out in Syria, and there is no end in sight. More than 120,000 people have been killed so far. Two-and-a-half million Syrians are refugees. The damage to the country’s infrastructure is estimated at $3 billion.

On the ground, a fragile equilibrium holds between the regime and its opponents. President Bashar Assad’s army manages limited gains in key regions, like the coastal area near Tartus and Latakia, and in major cities like Aleppo and Damascus. But the regime is far from defeating the rebels, and has, to some extent, come to terms with rebel control over certain areas, like the Kurdish region in northeastern Syria.

Assad’s opponents, for their part, continue to show weakness and fractiousness, as a motley assortment of groups — some radical Islamists, others secular — fight the regime and fight each other. The Syrian army today numbers close to 230,000 men. Facing them are 120,000 rebels, two-thirds of whom are considered Islamists — 10 percent are affiliated with al-Qaeda — and they’re all killing each other.

It is interesting to recall how this war started, with an incident so minor that no one would have paid attention to it if it happened today. A group of kids in the city of Daraa, near the border with Jordan, daubed some anti-Assad graffiti. Syrian policemen arrested the children, beat them, and took them to jail. The city’s residents demonstrated against the arrests, and from that point onward, the bodies began to pile up.

This week, too, and last week, and the week before that, shocking pictures came out of Syria, and it seems that everyone, even Syrians, has grown used to them. The killing of women, children, and the elderly has become a routine occurrence, so commonplace that the average news viewer in Israel and across the entire Middle East is no longer affected by it. Another village destroyed by aerial bombing, more refugees fleeing for their lives, more bodies strewn across the streets.

One of the recent atrocities took place in midweek in the Jarabulus area, near a place called a-Shiyuh. Members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliate, killed 22 people, children among them, and threw their bodies into the street to instill fear in the population. Some of the bodies were tossed into the Euphrates River. The victims were not supporters of the regime, rather of the Free Syrian Army, the military outfit representing the moderate opposition factions.

And Assad’s army continues to do what it does: bombings from the air using explosive barrels on opposition neighborhoods, or surface-to-surface missiles, in addition to massacres by armed groups that are not part of the regular army.

Residents of Syria's besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp carry food parcels, February 1, 2014 (photo credit: UNRWA/AFP)
Residents of Syria’s besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp carry food parcels, February 1, 2014. (photo credit: UNRWA/AFP)

Nevertheless, it was hard not to be moved this week by a report published by Amnesty International on the situation in Yarmouk near Damascus. Until the start of the civil war, Yarmouk was the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. Close to 150,000 people lived there in crowded conditions. But since the summer, the regime has carried out a cruel siege on the camp’s residents after Hamas members there took an active part in fighting the Syrian army. Now there are only 20,000 residents left in the camp.

The siege arouses no international indignation, in stark contrast to reactions to the nonexistent siege around the Gaza Strip. Occasionally, reports are published on what happens in the camp, and still, the international community has allowed Assad to carry on with one of his most brutal campaigns against the opposition.

According to Amnesty International, the Assad regime is simply starving the camp to death. The humanitarian aid that reaches the camp is negligible, and 200 residents have died, 128 of them from hunger, according to Amnesty.

Eighteen were children and babies.

According to Philip Louter, director of the Middle East and North Africa region at Amnesty, “Syrian forces are committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war. The harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs, and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialized in Yarmouk.”

The regime, Amnesty said, prevented food and military supplies from reaching the camp, arrested and tortured medical staff there, bombed schools and hospitals, caused severe malnutrition (60% of the camp is malnourished), and more.

And the world is silent. Even those in Israel who raise a clamor over a few hours’ delay in the delivery of a sack of rice to Gaza ignore the atrocity. As long as it’s Arabs killing Arabs, who cares?

Hezbollah and al-Qaeda at Israel’s gates

The ongoing war has presented a variety of challenges for other players in the region — Hezbollah, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel. After three years of the Syrian army being worn down, it’s clear that the threat of a conventional Syrian military action inside of Israel, like 1973 or something more limited, is virtually nonexistent. The possibility of substantial missile or artillery fire on Israel exists, but is almost as unlikely. The Syrian army did actually manage to improve its abilities in this regard, mainly with short-range artillery. But the storied Syrian units meant to capture parts of Israel in a war, like the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 15th divisions, have changed their operational plans and are spread across Syria.

As for the threat of chemical attack: This month, the process of disarming Syria from such weapons was supposed to conclude. But Assad delayed the process, and gained international attention and legitimacy. Still, it appears that fears of a nonconventional attack on Israel have ebbed of late.

The main problem that the Israeli security establishment has to deal with these days relates to the border with the Syrian Golan, which has changed. On the other side, there is no longer a known, responsible address. Various areas of potential friction are ruled by moderate rebels, Islamists, and regime forces. Sixty percent of the border area is under the control of the opposition, including the Bir Ajam and Baraka area. Only three kilometers away, the Syria army manages to survive. In Kudna, a complex fight is being carried out between the regime and the rebels, just like in Quneitra. In the northern Syrian Golan, Druze supporters of Assad battle Sunni rebels. The southern Syrian Golan is mostly ruled by Islamist groups, the most dominant of which is Jubhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate made up of local fighters (as opposed to ISIL, which is composed primarily of fighters from abroad).

A view of Israel' border with Syria in the Golan Heights, August 2013 (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash90)
A view of Israel’s border with Syria in the Golan Heights, August 2013 (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The control of the southern Golan by the rebels presents a complicated problem to the regime itself, which is trying to conquer Daraa and its environs, due to their strategic importance. Daraa, where the civil war erupted, is considered a strategic city because of its position between the border with Jordan and Damascus.

In nearly every flash point in Syria, Hezbollah fighters can be found. Their numbers in the country stand at 3,500 or 4,000. This is a huge number relative to the organization’s overall fighting force — a full one-third. Alongside them fight hundreds of members of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The exact number of Hezbollah casualties is unclear, but it continues to rise, and estimates put the figures at between 300 and 500 deaths. Al-Arabiya reported that 56 bodies of Hezbollah fighters killed in Yabroud were transferred to Lebanon in recent days. Yabroud lies on the Syria-Lebanon border, and like Daraa, is considered a key city by the regime. This is the city from which the car bombs that detonate in Beirut set out, and it is considered a stronghold of extremist Sunni groups.

The likelihood that Hezbollah is also operating on the Golan Heights is high, and it is possible that, as Assad promised, the Syrian Golan will become a “resistance zone,” or in other words, a staging ground for attacks against Israel. In this vein, Israeli officials continue to believe that the cell that tried to place an explosive device last Wednesday along the border fence, in an area ruled by the regime, either belonged to Hezbollah or operated on its orders.

The involvement of Hezbollah in Syria has complicated its position in Lebanon, and forced it to deal with radical Sunni terror, the likes of which it had never seen. It also seems that Hezbollah’s capacity to deal with this threat is somewhat limited by changes in the Lebanese population. More than one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon’s cities, changing the balance there. On the other hand, as Hezbollah’s support for Assad has grown, and with it the price it must pay, the organization gets more and more rewards from the Syrian president. Assad tries mightily to transfer to Hezbollah the finest Syrian and Russian arms, from the land-to-sea Yakhont missiles, to advanced surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles.

Hezbollah is trying to build up its offensive capabilities against Israel, including its rocket arsenal. It has created a fleet of UAVs (as well as a mysterious airport in Baalbek, according to various media sources), and is establishing special forces units meant to operate inside Israel during a war. To a large extent, a unification of the two political entities, Syria and Lebanon, is taking place, mainly because of the mutual dependency of Assad and Hezbollah.

As long as the Lebanese Shiite organization is fighting alongside the Syrian army, the opposition will struggle to defeat the regime. The Syrian president needs Hezbollah by his side to ensure his survival. And the fall of the Assad regime could complicate Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon even further, and cause a significant weakening of its forces.

Syrian President Bashar Assad during a television interview in Damascus, September 2013 (photo credit: AP/CBS)
Syrian President Bashar Assad during a television interview in Damascus, September 2013 (photo credit: AP/CBS)

How might this war end? For now, it’s unclear. Without active international involvement, it is doubtful that a significant change in the balance of forces in Syria will occur anytime soon. And such involvement is unrealistic right now.

Another scenario, which is more likely, and could bring about a drastic change, is an isolated action by the rebels against the president himself, like in 2012, when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in a meeting of the Syrian military leadership, wiping out most of it. The killing of the president, who continues to control his army’s actions, could be the move that causes the regime to collapse.

read more: