Staring into Syria across Israel’s barbed-wire border, the land all looks the same. The rolling hills and deserted UN base in the distance present a deceptive image of calm, while just 50 kilometers away in the city capital of Damascus, urban warfare and human rights violations are occurring daily.
With death toll reports as high as 30,000, the horror of war is clear. What is less clear is what opposition group, if any, is worthy of external cooperation and support.
Though the U.S. is withholding military involvement, it certainly has picked its side. The U.S. backed the rebel Free Syrian Army by providing $25 million dollars in non-lethal aid that could be used for communications equipment and other supplies. U.S. support for the Syrian people and refugees is also evident in the $64 million dollars of humanitarian aid provided. Furthermore, the Syrian revolt has been considered alongside the rest of the Arab Spring in U.S. media. As such, the American public has formed an overwhelmingly pro-rebel stance that is, perhaps prematurely, aligned with pro-freedom and pro-democracy rhetoric. U.S.-based humanitarian agencies, such as Human Rights Watch, have accused any country that closes its borders to Syrian refugees of enabling persecution and breaching international law. Israel, until recently, was the only such country. In this respect, the United States’ stance on Syria has not presented Israel in a particularly favorable light.
However, among Israelis, the Syrian conflict is understood quite differently. Unlike in the case of Egypt’s revolt, there is little reason to support current leadership since no current peace agreement between Israel and Syria exists. Additionally, supporting a dictator who has committed crimes against humanity poses a moral dilemma for most, here. However, though the Free Syrian Army has ambitions for a democratic Syrian government, they also advocate for a more Islamic state. Religious extremism is not their official agenda, but ultra-conservative groups are becoming a growing minority among rebel forces. An extremist seizing power could pose a security concern for the State of Israel and cannot be entirely discarded as a possibility.
This possibility is of particular concern to locals in the strategic region of Israel’s Golan Heights. One Druze community, located directly on the Israel-Syria border, has experienced both Syrian and Israeli occupation over the years and fears changes to the current establishment. After the 1948 Syrian invasion, the town was controlled by the regime of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president. The area was regained by Israel in 1973, but lines were drawn in such a way that the border split families in half. Before the convenience of cheap international calling or Facebook, hundreds of neighbors gathered to yell announcements of weddings and births across the barrier. Since the Druze believe in supporting the nation of their residence, some relatives now live and serve in the Israeli Defense Force while others live and serve in Syria. Support for the Assad regime in this area clearly stems from both political and personal concerns. While it is easy for outsiders to point fingers and blame Israel for not welcoming Syrian refugees into the Golan Heights, these locals may not consider such asylum seekers to even be refugees in the first place.
For these residents’ circumstances, support for Israel and support for Assad are not completely at odds. For many other Israelis, neither continued Assad leadership nor an uncertain future yields much potential for peace with Israel. With so many other security and immigration issues facing Israel, there is hesitation to become emotionally or otherwise invested in Syria’s conflict.
America leaps to assess foreign affairs and has chosen its side, but as far as I’ve seen, voices rallying for the rebel cause or for a rush to aid Syrian refugees are not cries frequently heard in Israel today.