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February 19, 2018 2:06 pm

By Focusing on Humanitarian Aid, Israel Can Still Win in Syria

avatar by Joel Parker / JNS.org

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A man is seen with a child who rides a bicycle inside damaged area in Misraba, Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, Jan. 11, 2018. Reuters / Bassam Khabieh.

JNS.org – Despite working for several years with international and regional partners to limit Hezbollah and Iranian gains at the expense of the Syrian people — and investing considerable diplomatic capital on trying to convince its allies to abandon or revise the Iran deal — the Israeli government appears low on fresh diplomatic options in this area.

In the big picture, Israel needs to realize that the key military power on the ground in Syria is Russia — a Russia that’s not interested in stopping Iran, limiting Shiite militias in Syria or rejecting the nuclear deal. The United States is also probably not interested in conducting a major ground war against Iranian-allied forces in Syria. Nevertheless, Israel should not lose sight of the local situation on its borders, where hundreds of thousands of refugees and citizens live with very few resources, seven years into the Syrian conflict.

Militias loyal to the Assad regime took over the rebel-held Beit Jann area last December, following a series of victories that were often aided by Iranian-allied militias. In other parts of southern Syria, there has largely been a stalemate with neither the regime — nor the rebels — able to completely overtake each other’s territory.

Israel actually has little leverage on the military side, due to a longstanding commitment not to get directly involved in the war. Yet its “Operation Good Neighbor” — run by the Israel Defense Forces’ 210th division since 2016, in partnership with a number of international aid organizations — has managed to provide hundreds of tons of food, baby formula, medicine, cooking oil and heating oil — as well electricity generators and even doctors — to civilians in the rebel-held areas of bordering towns that are just over the Syrian side of the zone. This project is making a significantly positive impact, and word of its success is spreading from person to person.

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In light of this, Israel should double its already significant humanitarian goals in southern Syria, where it has a long-term interest in maintaining good relations with the people on the ground. That includes the local Druze communities, who currently fear having open relations with Israel.

Arguably, a sound way to limit Iranian influence in southern Syria is to continue to send the strong message that Israel represents the most beneficial partner over the long haul.

Joel Parker is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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