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Israel 'armed, paid Syria rebels' to curb Iran expansion

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Israel has secretly armed and funded more than a dozen rebel groups in southern Syria in recent years to prevent Iranian-backed fighters and Islamic State militants from advancing near the Israeli border, according to a new report by Foreign Policy, reported The New Arab (UK).

Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Israel has refused to accept refugees, instead treating the sick and wounded in its northern hospitals and clinics before returning the patients to their own country.

Reports emerged last year the Israeli military had direct communications with rebel commanders and provided funds for salaries, ammunition and weapons to provide a friendly buffer along the Golan Heights border.

In interviews conducted in 2017 by the Wall Street Journal, rebels said the cooperation began as early as 2013 after wounded fighters received treatment in Israeli hospitals.

Israel's assistance to rebel groups expanded significantly last year, coinciding with a more aggressive Israeli policy to keep Iranian-backed militias away from southern Syria, after a deal between the US, Russia, and Israel failed to materialise.

Israel has carried out some 200 strikes in Syria over the past 18 months against mainly Iranian targets.

Weapons and money
Dozens of rebel commanders and fighters told Foreign Policy that Israel provided salaries of around $75 per month to each fighter and provided additional funds to buy weapons on the Syrian black market.

Weapons and other military transfers were delivered through three security gates connecting the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights with Syria.

The military transfers, which ended in July, included transport vehicles, assault rifles and mortar launches.

Israel supplied arms and funds to rebel groups comprising thousands of fighters, although such assistance is thought to be significantly less than that provided by other foreign powers in the Syrian civil war.

Syrian rebel commanders have complained that Israel's assistance was insufficient.

Rebels told Foreign Policy that Israeli assistance created an expectation that Tel Aviv would intervene if Bashar al-Assad's troops tried to advance in southern Syria.

In June, the Russian-backed Damascus regime pressed a deadly campaign in southern Syria in a bid to retake the strategic area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Israel did not intervene, but threatened to attack Syrian regime forces if they deployed in a demilitarised zone in the Golan Heights while advancing against opposition rebels.

"This is a lesson we will not forget about Israel. It does not care about … the people. It does not care about humanity. All it cares about it its own interests," a fighter from one of the groups, Forsan al-Jolan, told Foreign Policy.

The Quneitra and Daraa offensives - which had been backed by massive Russian airpower - saw hundreds of thousands of civilians flee their homes, some to the Golan and Jordan borders.

Some rebels reached out to their Israeli military contacts to ask for asylum, with Israeli officials allowing a handful of rebel commanders and their family members to enter Israel.

Some are reported to have travelled on to Jordan and Turkey.

Israeli forces manning the frontier on the illegally-occupied side of the Syrian territories warned refugees to head back to their camps or face the threat of violence.

A deal was reportedly reached in July between Israel, Russia, and the United States for Moscow to keep Iranian-backed militias away from the Golan Heights and not to hinder Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets.

Israel has also reportedly provided fire support to rebel factions fighting a local Islamic State affiliate in the Yarmouk Basin, carrying out drone strikes targeting IS commanders and missile strikes against the group's fortifications, Foreign Policy reported.

No such fire support was provided to rebel groups fighting regime forces.

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