September 13, 2015 - More on Syria: refugees and Russians



This week, Alpher discusses the pros and cons of Israel taking in refugees from Syria; if there is a Palestinian angle to the Syrian refugee crisis; and what are the potential consequences for Israel of the arrival of Russian military forces in Syria.


Q. Should Israel offer to take in refugees from Syria? PM Netanyahu says no. Opposition leader Herzog says yes. What are the pros and cons?

A. Let’s begin with the cons, if only because no refugees are lining up at Israel’s border with Syria and asking to be admitted. Israel and Syria have been in an official state of war since 1948 and most Syrians are accustomed to looking at their neighbor as the enemy. The concept of a safe haven in an enemy country is foreign to the thinking of both sides to a conflict. Syrians who have made their way to, say, Turkey and Jordan and are invited to Israel would not necessarily come. Syrians welcomed into Israel would not necessarily be grateful and peace-loving.

Second, Israel has for several years been offering medical and humanitarian aid to any Syrians who approach the border crossings. Here, too, the numbers are painfully small (somewhere over 1,000 Syrians treated) in view of the millions fleeing and hundreds of thousands dead and wounded in Syria. Most of those Syrians who have been treated in Israel don’t dare acknowledge that fact back home.

Third, the only Syrians who appear to be potential candidates for direct Israeli aid are the Druze of southern Syria. Their loyalty until now has been to the Assad regime, which remains hostile to Israel. Yet they enjoy close relations with Israeli Druze who are concerned about their fate. No Syrian Druze have requested asylum or shelter in Israel. At most, under current circumstances they could be candidates for Israeli arms and training to defend themselves.

Then there are the differences between Europe, where most Syrian and other refugees in the current wave wish to go, and Israel. Many European countries, with their negative population growth and lopsided demographics (more old people than young), are easily able to absorb young, able-bodied refugees. Israel, in contrast, is enjoying a population boom (now at around 8.4 million residents). If Israel has a need for additional labor, it should be welcoming Palestinian day laborers from the West Bank and possibly Gaza. It also has a population-in-limbo of tens of thousands of mistreated Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers and labor migrants who can be put to work. It should start with them.

Further, Israelis and Arabs alike ask why wealthy Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE seemingly don’t hasten to invite the Syrian refugees. These Arabic-speaking countries are obliged to employ huge numbers of expatriate workers from the Indian sub-continent in order to satisfy the employment needs generated by their booming economies. Why not absorb and employ fellow Arabs? Is this a replay of Arab refusal to absorb the 1948 Palestinian refugees? What dark dynamic is at work here? (Note: the Saudis refute these allegations and claim, without any known evidence, that they have absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and financially support additional refugee efforts.)


Q. You mention Palestinian refugees. Is there a Palestinian angle to the Syrian refugee crisis?

A. The Palestinian issue is a major complication. The moment the Netanyahu government announces it will accept Syrian refugees, Palestinians and other Arabs will legitimately ask why Israel refuses to accept Palestinian refugees who trace their status to the 1948 war. This, in turn, will open the Pandora’s Box of the right of return even without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other words, a specific invitation to Arab refugees to find shelter in Israel would not remain an isolated issue. It would have potentially far-reaching consequences for peace process-related issues and for Israel’s already shaky international standing.

Note, in this regard, that the West Bank Palestinian leadership has suddenly decided to ask the United Nations to pressure Israel to allow half a million Palestinian refugees from Syria to resettle in the West Bank and Gaza. Back in January 2013, the Red Cross made precisely such a proposal to the Palestinians. At that time, the Hamas leadership in Gaza refused to accept a single refugee and West Bank-based Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) said he would rather the refugees die in Syria than come to the West Bank if Israel’s price for acquiescing is renouncing the right of return.

Nearly three years ago, Netanyahu’s condition for allowing Palestinian refugees from Syria into the West Bank was that they acknowledge that they were exercising their right of return by resettling in the Palestinian Authority. Since then, the plight of the 300,000 Palestinian refugees in the huge Yarmouk Camp near Damascus has worsened dramatically and most have fled. Perhaps the refugees’ worsened plight points to a potential compromise point of convergence for Israelis and Palestinians: Either Abbas could accept Netanyahu’s condition, which calls for little more than a declaration, or Israel could negotiate a rephrasing of its right of return condition so that the West Bank could absorb Palestinian refugees from Syria via the Israeli-monitored Allenby Bridge. Note that the bridge links the West Bank to Jordan, whose cooperation would also have to be recruited. Israel, Jordan and the PLO could all take credit for a major humanitarian gesture. (Note, too, that the more extreme members of Netanyahu’s coalition, who dream about a Jewish West Bank with few if any Arabs, might object to any entry at all of Palestinian refugees from Syria to the Palestinian Autonomy.)


Q. This idea brings us to the pros. . .

A. One key lesson of the Holocaust that all Israelis are aware of is the failure of the world to accept Jews fleeing persecution and eventual annihilation at the hands of the Nazis. Accordingly, Israelis and Jews everywhere should be particularly sensitive to refugee issues. This explains Herzog’s call (“have we forgotten what it is to be Jews?”) for at least a symbolic act of welcoming Syrian refugees.

Surely Israel can find a way to signal its sensitivity to the human tragedy transpiring across its northern border. This could send an important signal to the very same Europe that most Israelis aspire to emulate, to the liberal American Jewish community whose identification with Israel has been so badly damaged by Netanyahu’s Iran and Palestine policies and his cultivation of Republican political values, and to the Muslim world that surrounds us. Indeed, as a country still locked in conflict with the Arab world, Israel could conceivably turn the tables on the refugee issue by offering to absorb a limited number of highly endangered non-Muslims: Yazidis from Iraq or Christian Arameans and Nestorians from Iraq and Syria.


Q. Speaking of Syria, last week you noted the arrival of Russian military forces there. US Secretary of State John Kerry hastened to protest. What are the potential consequences for Israel?

A. Despite reassurances that their military is merely engaged in training and supplying the Syrian armed forces, the Russians appear to be taking over two or three air bases near the Syrian Mediterranean port of Latakia and are deploying MiG-31 and Sukhoi 35 aircraft there along with ground troops to defend the bases. Latakia and Tartus ports, which are part of the Alawite territorial homeland, have long been the only Russian Navy supply bases in the Mediterranean. Assad and his fellow Alawites who rule Syria have in recent months suffered repeated military setbacks that endanger even the Alawite coastal enclave to which they would presumably retreat if they lost control over Damascus or the territory linking Damascus to the coast.

Moscow appears to have concluded that this is now a possibility. Already Islamist forces north of Latakia are beginning to mount a threat to the city. In parallel to the Russian deployment, Iran is reportedly augmenting its al-Quds Force contingent in Syria--another indication of concern among Assad’s allies regarding the future of his regime.

An American request that Bulgaria and Greece not permit Russian supply over-flights will not prevent Moscow from building a base at Latakia. Moreover, as long as Russia claims to be aiding the Assad government, however repugnant that regime is, Washington can hardly object too loudly. After all, it long ago abandoned its resolve to remove Assad. Currently, the alternative to Assad appears to be just as bad.

Meanwhile, a diverse US-led coalition is attacking Islamic State forces in both Iraq and Syria; last week witnessed the advent of British, French and Australian air force attacks in Syria. All are attacking Islamist forces that threaten Assad’s rule.

Still, the potential implications of the return of Russian combat forces to the Middle East for the first time since the end of the Cold War are not lost on Israel. At the height of the Cold War, in 1970-71, the Israel Air Force faced off against Soviet-piloted combat aircraft over the Suez Canal (and downed Soviet planes in a legendary dogfight). A lot of water has flowed through that canal since then, and Israel and Russia today have friendly relations that even enjoy a strategic dimension. Accordingly, it is important to Israel to send clear signals to the Russians regarding areas of sensitivity in Syria--the region near the Golan and Syrian transfers of strategic weaponry to Hezbollah--where Israel currently enjoys relative freedom of maneuver to protect its vital interests and where it would not at all wish to encounter the Russian military. Nor would Israel wish to meet up with Syrian forces that are receiving sophisticated intelligence about Israel from the growing Russian base at Latakia.

Presumably, these Israeli “red lines” are already known to the Russians. One way or another, the Russian move into Latakia and the Iranian reinforcements, like the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe, open up yet another international dimension of the explosive Levant conflict that must concern both Israel and the US.