A rare snowstorm engulfing their country found many distressed Israelis asking what happened to their army, the IDF, the country’s mainstay in hard times The odd armored personnel carrier helped clear a few roads and army trucks carried some Home Command soldiers around communities suffering power cuts and isolation. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon put in an appearance at the snow command center set up in Jerusalem city hall.
But most of the army had vanished.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources ran them to earth in… South Syria.
From last Saturday, Dec. 14, when heavy snow began falling non-stop for two days, a large number of Israeli soldiers were occupied ferrying supplies of food, water and medicines to roughly half a million inhabitants of the stranded villages and towns of southern Syria, as well as transferring medical cases to hospital.
Without this desperately needed assistance, those communities could scarcely have survived the worst snow blizzard to hit the Middle East in a hundred years. They would certainly have been easy prey for Bashar Assad’s army.
Because of this help, South Syria was the only part of the country, aside from sections of Damascus, where the population and rebel forces withstood the extreme weather as well as standing their ground.
Netanyahu and Gantz oppose intervention
Our military sources report that the IDF’s step across the border into Syria, dictated by the dire need for humanitarian assistance, far exceeded the strict limitations placed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz on Israel’s military role in the Syrian conflict and Lebanon.
They permit non-lethal logistic and intelligence assistance to help certain Syrian rebel factions withstand two foes, the Syrian army and Al Qaeda, especially the Nusra Front. Israel has also evacuated 600 injured and sick Syrian rebels and civilians to its hospitals for medical treatment and rehabilitation.
All other aid is kept under tight wraps.
The same secrecy is applies to the sharp dispute dividing Israel’s top government and military circles over Israel’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict; how far it should go – if at all – and the strategic case for any course of action, or inaction.
Netanyahu and Gantz lead the anti-intervention or minimalist camp.
They are challenged by Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen Gady Eisenkott, and OC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, who is responsible for Syrian and Lebanese border security.
Both head a camp which is pushing for the carving-out of a buffer region in southern Syria on the lines of the zone in southern Lebanon, which the Israeli army evacuated in 2000 after maintaining it for 34 years with the help of the force it created, the South Lebanese Army.
A buffer zone to keep the Revolutionary Guards at a distance
The defense minister leans toward the latter course but is careful to stay within the lines set by the prime minister.
The pro-interventionists’ case for a buffer zone is this: The expanding military role of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards personnel and its Lebanese proxy Hizballah in the Syrian war obliges Israel to establish a military buffer sector inside Syria to keep its northern border safe from their encroachments.
Those forces are pursuing the tactic of retaking every piece of Syrian territory captured by rebels and restoring these areas, one by one, to the control of the Assad regime.
This tactic will ultimately dump these avowed foes up against the Israeli border. The IDF will find itself cheek by jowl with Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah forces parked on the Golan, and face the perennial Iran-Hizaballah hazard to its existence from two places: Lebanon in the north; and Syria, to the east.
Another reason offered for a more proactive Israeli role in the Syrian war is that its absence from the arena plays into the hands of Assad, Iran and Hizballah.
For now, South Lebanon is low on their list of priorities, which is headed by the imperative of keeping Assad in power and in control of key regions. However, this perception would change in a trice if al Qaeda were to move into the South. Assad and Iran would see this as a direct threat to Damascus and put their military successes in central and northern Syria in extreme jeopardy.
A Iranian-Hizballah presence or al Qaeda – equal hazards
On the face of it, Israel therefore shares an interest with the Syrian army, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah in blocking al Qaeda’s access to the Syrian-Israeli border.
That is a dangerously shortsighted illusion, says the pro-intervention faction.
Exposing the southern Syrian borderland with Israel to an Iranian-Hizballah military presence would be as hazardous as opening the door to al Qaeda, while also giving Assad valuable support.
Israel should therefore take steps to keep any of those hostile forces, all dedicated to its destruction, as far as possible from its territory. The most effective way to achieve this would be to take control of the south Syrian sector adjoining Israel as a military buffer zone.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, Netanyahu and Gantz sharply contest this advice for two reasons:
1. Israel has up until now deliberately stayed clear of the four-year old Arab Revolt, escaping its turbulent fallout, and sees no reason to change this policy;
2. Direct Israeli intervention in Syria would inevitably lead to the formation of a pro-Israeli Syrian force which, under the pressures of endemic Middle East geopolitics, would eventually break up or transfer its loyalty to some other quarter.
They therefore regard a Syrian buffer zone as a high-risk gamble in which Israel would be unwise to invest.