Next month will mark seven years since the beginning of the pro-democracy protests in Damascus that triggered the Syrian civil war. The United Nations estimates 400,000 people have died in the war. Other groups believe the total may be much closer to half a million. Meanwhile, global superpowers, regional players, independent militias and terrorist groups continue to fight across a convoluted battlefield, where enemies one day can become allies the next, and a criminal tyrant can unleash chemical warfare on his own people and get away with it.
Throughout this mess, the Israeli government and the IDF have been models of restraint. They showed it again over the weekend after the IDF intercepted an Iranian drone crossing the border from Syria into Israel, leading to an Israeli air force attack on Syrian air defences in which an Israeli fighter jet was shot down, apparently by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile. “We are not inclined toward escalation,” said IDF Maj.-Gen. Yoel Strick, head of the force’s Northern Command, “but we have high-level capabilities and we will not hesitate to use them.”
Make no mistake: Israelis have been affected by the fighting in Syria, and the IDF has been forced to stand up for the safety of the Jewish state on numerous occasions. In September 2017, for example, Israeli forces destroyed a Hezbollah-launched, Iranian-built drone before it could cross into Israeli airspace, and launched an attack on a Syrian military base where Hezbollah stored missiles (the site was also connected to the chemical weapons of Syrian president Bashar Assad’s regime). In October, after a Syrian anti-aircraft battery fired at Israeli air force planes, Israel took it out. That same month, at least five rockets fired from Syria landed in Israel, continuing a trend from the previous summer. And in December, Israel destroyed an arms depot at an Iranian-built military base southwest of Damascus.
The record shows that Israel has exercised tremendous discipline in regards to Syria, even as many of its neighbours – and their global proxies – have carried on with ambiguous, and often reckless, campaigns. And not only discipline, but tremendous compassion, too. Operation Good Neighbour, the IDF’s program of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, is caring for chronically ill children, building new medical clinics in the war-torn country and supplying food, medicine and clothes to those affected by the civil war. Thousands of injured Syrians have been – and are being – treated at Israeli hospitals for free.
And Israel’s great sensitivity seems to be making a lasting impression, as Syrians bred on a diet of hatred toward the Jewish state re-evaluate what they thought they knew. “They used to tell us the only enemy of Syria was Israel,” a Syrian casualty of the civil war told CBC from his Israeli hospital bed in December 2016. “But when we came here and we saw the treatment … everything we were told has changed. And now Israel is 100 times better than Bashar al-Assad in the way they treat humans.”
All told, Israel has acted consistently, prudently and compassionately when it comes to the Syrian civil war. It’s a model that all parties involved would do well to emulate.