‘Israel has the opportunity to win the hearts of all Syrians’

FSA commander tells The Times of Israel that the IDF should establish anti-Assad no-fly zone, West not providing moderates with defensive weapons

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Illustrative photo of a Syrian rebel sitting behind an anti-aircraft weapon, February 8, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Abdullah al-Yassin)
Illustrative photo of a Syrian rebel sitting behind an anti-aircraft weapon, February 8, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Abdullah al-Yassin)

Israel stands to lose the popular support it gained among the Syrian population of the Golan Heights because it has been allowing Assad regime aircraft to bomb opposition-held villages near the border in recent days, a Free Syrian Army commander told The Times of Israel on Tuesday, voicing dismay at the West’s reluctance to provide the moderate opposition with basic means of self-defense.

In recent days President Bashar Assad’s Syrian Army has intensified its airstrikes against villages along the Israeli border, captured by the opposition over the past few weeks. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on Tuesday regime aircraft bombarded Syrian villages in the northern and central Golan Heights, including Ovania, Jubata al-Khashab, Turnejeh, Bir Ajam, Masharah and al-Breiqa.

Some of those villages are located within the buffer zone along the border with Israel, where no Syrian military presence is allowed under the Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria of May 1974, signed following the Yom Kippur War. Syrian oppositionists in the area have said that Israel’s reluctance to enforce the agreement against the regime’s army is tantamount to collaborating with Assad against the opposition.

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“The Assad army has almost collapsed [in the area] and we are making very good progress. The only thing stopping our advance is the aircraft strikes,” the field commander, who refused to reveal his identity, told The Times of Israel. He said that Syrian villagers who had taken refuge in camps within the buffer zone have been targeted by regime MiG fighter jets and helicopters dropping barrel bombs.

Israel consistently responds to fire penetrating its borders, attacking Assad regime targets, but refrains when shells or missiles land inside Syrian territory.

Israel, the commander said, should impose a no-fly area over the buffer zone and allow the moderate opposition fighters to continue eastward, toward Damascus.

“Israel could down any plane above that area and no one would blame it,” he continued. “Refraining from doing this means collaborating with the Assad gang in our murder.

“We are at a historic crossroads. Israel has the opportunity to win the hearts of all Syrians, whom the entire world has forsaken,” he went on. “If you get rid of this gang, your border will be protected. No one will even think of attacking you. People here are sick and tired of wars.”

A spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces told The Times of Israel that the fighting in Syria is “an internal Syrian matter” and would offer no explanation for Israel’s disinclination to respond to infractions in the buffer zone.

‘Israel should accept more Syrian patients’

Since the capture of FSA commander Sharif as-Safouri by the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front in July, Israel has reduced the number of injured Syrian opposition fighters received for medical treatment, the commander said. Safouri, the commander of Al-Haramein Brigade, was the main coordinator of medical treatment with Israeli authorities.

Three injured Syrian FSA fighters have been awaiting treatment in Israel for two months, with no Israeli response. Syrian civilians being injured daily have limited access to Israel as well, he added.

Israeli soldiers escort a wounded Syrian patient into a secret military field hospital in the Golan Heights. (photo credit: screen capture, Channel 2)
Israeli soldiers escort a wounded Syrian patient into a secret military field hospital in the Golan Heights. (photo credit: screen capture, Channel 2)

The commander would like to see a permanent mechanism in place allowing injured rebel fighters to enter Israel for treatment without delay.

“I would like to arrive at the border crossing and have my injured men treated in Israel immediately. This would change public opinion toward Israel,” he said.

Limited cooperation with al-Nusra Front

No more than 150 fighters belonging to al-Nusra Front are present along the Syrian border with Israel, the commander asserted, claiming that more Islamists are based further east, in the Daraa province. The border area, including the Quneitra crossing, is being held by moderate opposition groups, he asserted.

He described the collaboration between his forces and the Nusra jihadists as tactical, with “coordination existing only in military activity,” not in strategy.

“When a battle begins, they take one target and we take the others,” he said.

But while the moderate Syrian fighters on the Golan are willing to cooperate with al-Nusra in battle, they are wary of extremist ideology influencing the population, especially the younger generation.

“Al-Nusra Front receives much support. Most of our children have joined it. But if [material] support for us increases, we will be able to draw our children into our own units and protect them from extremist ideology.”

Even without such support, the Free Syrian Army has forbidden its fighters to attend sermons and religious classes delivered by al-Nusra Front members. One such Friday sermon, delivered last month at a mosque in the city of al-Breiqa, was attended by a number of FSA fighters who refused to come the following week when learning the speaker was a sheikh from al-Nusra Front.

The FSA even established its own sharia court to try fighters “who have sinned” based on Islamic law, to compete with similar religious courts set up by al-Nusra.

Most of al-Nusra’s commanders are foreigners, he said. “Once we finish with the Alawite regime [of Bashar Assad], we will not let them [the foreign fighters] stay in Syria.”

West still reluctant to provide quality weapons

Despite US President Barack Obama’s pledge to ramp up American support for the moderate Syrian opposition, the commander said that military aid — obtained through the Military Operations Command (MOC) center in Amman, Jordan — remains limited.

The United States, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — which man the command center — adamantly refuse to provide anti-aircraft weaponry to the Free Syrian Army. The center provides ammunition, financial support, and small arms training to the rebels. The fighters have also received TOW and Konkurs anti-tank missiles, but he said those were distributed stingily.

“We only got one launcher and 10 missiles per unit of 50 men,” he complained.

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