Related Quarterly Updates

Syrian-Israeli talks, officially suspended in February 1994, were reported by senior U.S. officials on 12/30 to have continued in about 24 secret, high-level meetings in Washington over the past six months. The first publicly acknowledged meeting since the suspension was held in Washington on 12/9 in the presence of U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, paving the way for the first official Syrian-Israeli talks since the suspension that began in Washington on 12/22. These talks, soon joined by military chiefs of staff, ended on 12/25 without progress, with Pres. al-Asad reportedly "overwhelmed by what he considered Israel's inflexibility during the military talks" (NYT, 3/15). Pres. al-Asad recalled his ambassador to the U.S., Walid Mu'allim, effectively suspending the talks once again.

In late February, low-level, unofficial talks resumed in Washington under the direction of U.S. coordinator Dennis Ross, but negotiating positions remained unchanged. On 3/5, Rabin reiterated his offer of a "very small" withdrawal from Golan in exchange for a three-year period to "test" full normalization, open borders, and exchange embassies, which Pres. Hafiz al-Asad again rejected.

To jump-start talks, Secy. of State Christopher travelled to Damascus and Tel Aviv 3/13-15 and persuaded the parties to switch the focus of talks from the extent of Israeli withdrawal (the current sticking-point) to post-withdrawal security arrangement.

angements. On 3/22, Syria and Israel accepted a four-stage U.S. formula for drafting a military annex to a future peace agreement: (1) Israeli and Syrian ambassadors define gaps and points of accord and fix agenda for talks between military experts; (2) U.S. envoy Ross shuttles between Israel and Syria, compiling a comprehensive list of concerns and agreements; (3) military experts meet in Washington to find a military solution based on concerns listed; (4) military chiefs of staff draft the annex.

Official negotiations, suspended since last December, resumed in Washington 3/ 27-29, but without military advisors as had been planned. Syria pulled its advisors at the last minute, saying they would not be sent until Israel agreed on the underlying principles of the security arrangements. Talks ended with differences slightly narrowed, but no agreements.

In early April, Israel retracted its demand that Syria cut its standing army as part of a peace agreement. Syria switched its demands for geographical "symmetry" in security arrangements to a demand for overall "equality," but rejected Israel's suggestion of a 1:9 ratio for demilitarized zones; the U.S. said it is aiming for 1:4 compromise.

After Syria backed out of Washington talks scheduled for mid-April, Peres called for upgrading talks to the foreign minister level, suggested discussing all aspects (withdrawal, borders, diplomatic relations, security, timetables) at once rather than struggling over "equality," and hinted at possible withdrawal to the international border drawn after WWI. Syria demanded withdrawal to the 6/4/67 border, which includes a strip of land along the Sea of Galilee not included in the international border.

Two days of unproductive official talks were held 4/25-26, again without military advisors. As of mid-May, Israel was reported to have offered to make a small withdrawal from the Golan nine months after signing a peace accord, followed by a larger withdrawal after three more years. Its earlier proposal had been to withdraw from most of the Golan in three stages over five to eight years.


In May, Israel and the U.S. made several small concessions in an effort to revive talks, suspended since 4/26, including: a 5/17 Israeli offer to allow Syria to deploy an early warning station on Israeli territory in exchange for an equivalent system on Syrian soil; a 5/20 U.S. bridging proposal on security; and a reiterated Israeli offer (5/25) to make a "symbolic" withdrawal from the Golan. All were rejected by Syria. 

On 5/23, after Syria softened its insistence that security arrangements be "reciprocal and equal" (see Chronology 4/3), Israel and Syria agreed on a "Document of Understandings" or "guidelines" (not released; see Doc. C2 for an Israeli analysis of the document) for negotiating a Golan security arrangement to follow Israeli withdrawal and agreed to have military experts work out details in Washington. On 6/8, the sides set 6/27 as the date to reconvene.

On 6/25, Israeli negotiator Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak arrived early in Washington to present the Pentagon with $2.5-b. "compensation package" Israel expects to receive from the U.S. in return for making peace with Syria. The package includes advanced JSTARS surveillance, stationary ground early warning stations, satellite transformation ad linkage stations, and access to U.S. high-resolution satellite information.

The 6/27-29 negotiations addressed security arrangements in the context of "a phased-withdrawal scenario," with Syria reportedly returning to old positions presented in the 12/94 talks. Sides agreed on the need for some form of early-warning mechanism, demilitarized zones or "zones of separation" monitored by multinational forces, observer posts, and scaled-back troop deployments but did not discuss details or methods of implementation. All specific proposals were rejected: Israel turned down an offer of a 10:6 (Syria:Israel) demilitarization zone ratio; Syria rejected Israeli requests for a hot line between military headquarters and joint patrols with the UN observer force in the Golan, and a U.S. proposal (supported by Israel) to station U.S., rather than UN, troops on the Golan following Israeli withdrawal. On 6/29, sides broke for two weeks to assess the talks.

roke for two weeks to assess the talks. Keeping to the 3/22 four-stage formula, U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross shuttled between Jerusalem and Damascus (7/ 10-13) to prepare for second phase of talks between Syrian and Israeli military experts, planned for mid-July. Pres. Hafiz al-Asad expressed reservations about procedural matters and declared that for Syria to join the next round of talks Ross had to achieve "progress in the right direction" on four issues: Israeli withdrawal to 1967 border; no Israeli early-warning sites on Syrian territory; equal and balanced security arrangements; and Israeli withdrawal before normalization. Asad accepted the U.S. idea of ground earlywarning posts manned by international (non-Israeli) forces. 

Shortly after Ross departed (without setting a date or agenda for the next round) Syria (on 7/15, 7/30) and Israel (7/14, 7/15) accused each other of backtracking on previous understandings on early-warning posts. On 7/17, Rabin rejected Syria's compromise proposal to hold an ambassadors meeting in Washington with military experts on site to participate as needed, calling it a violation of the 3/22 formula. On 7/30, Syria said talks between military experts could not resume until an agenda on security arrangements was agreed upon. On 8/2, Rabin rejected Secy. of State Warren Christopher's request to resume talks with Syria on the ambassadorialevel, demanding talks include military advisers. By mid-August, the track was still stalled.

Although UNRWA aid personnel were allowed into certain areas of Damascus at the end of last quarter (see JPS 45 [3]), and a U.S.- Russia–brokered cease-fire went into effect on 2/27, conditions for the Palestinian community in Syria did not improve this quarter, particularly in the Damascus Yarmouk r.c. where there were renewed outbreaks of fighting.

Because reliable reporting from Syria remains sparse, it was 8 days before the 1st international outlet reported on the 4/6 assault by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). According to Al Jazeera (4/14), around 5,000 civilians were trapped in areas of Yarmouk where fighting was going on, and newly formed armed Palestinian groups were fighting alongside al-Nusra Front against ISIS (al-Nusra Front and ISIS had previously been allies in the fight for control of the camp). Some 50 ISIS fighters, 12 al-Nusra Front fighters, and 4 civilians were killed (2 of the civilians were allegedly decapitated by ISIS troops), according to the report, and at least 20 buildings were burned, including a hospital, leading a coalition of camp residents to call for a cease-fire on 4/13. The call went unanswered and, by 4/19, ISIS controlled about 70% of the camp, according to PLO envoy to Syria Anwar Abed al-Hadi.

A top Hezbollah commander was killed in an air strike outside Damascus on 5/10. Early reports said the Israeli air force was responsible, but neither Hezbollah not Israel confirmed the news. The strike came 1 mo. after Israeli PM Netanyahu had made a rare acknowledgement of Israeli military operations in Syria. “We act when we need to . . . with dozens of strikes meant to deny Hezbollah game-changing weaponry,” he stated on 4/11.

The Palestinian community’s fate in the ongoing conflict in Syria appeared increasingly precarious this quarter. While humanitarian conditions in Yarmouk r.c. outside Damascus remained dire, renewed fighting nr. the Syrian capital put another predominantly Palestinian community, Khan Eshieh r.c., at risk. Fighting between armed rebel groups and Syrian govt. forces escalated nr. the camp late on 5/16, killing at least 12 people. According to the Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development, based in Yarmouk, the fighting prevented needed supplies from reaching Khan Eshieh, endangering the well-being of the camp’s 9,000 residents. By 6/20, Jafra reported that a hidden path which residents used in order to bring supplies into the camp had been regularly targeted with sniper fire and artillery shelling. Furthermore, 3 Palestinian refugees were killed on 6/14 when an artillery shell landed nr. a camp mosque after evening prayers (UNRWA, 6/15). The violence continued through the end of the quarter. Russian warplanes targeted the camp on 6/30, killing 6 and reportedly causing massive damage. Two days of relative quiet followed the strikes before air strikes hit the camp again on 7/3, killing 3 more residents and demolishing a children’s center run by the Jafra Foundation.

While the violence nr. Khan Eshieh continued, a high-profile killing underscored the plight of Palestinian refugees in the Syrian conflict. In mid-7/2016, videos began circulating online depicting the beheading of a Palestinian child amid heavy fighting in Aleppo. The 5 rebel perpetrators claimed the boy was a pro-govt. fighter out of whom they sought to make an example.

For the 2d quarter in a row, the plight of the Palestinian residents of Khan Eshieh r.c. outside Damascus was in the spotlight, with continued fighting nr. the Syrian capital placing them in an increasingly dangerous position. According to Emad al-Muslimani, a media activist living in the camp, the shelling of Khan Eshieh escalated in late 9/2016, following a lull in the wake of the initial escalation in 5/2016 (see JPS 46 [1]). “Barrel bombs, cluster munitions, bunker-buster missiles, you name it,” he wrote in an online article. “It is like the camp is being used as a testing ground for weapons” (Electronic Intifada, 10/12). The Syrian army, with Russian air support, was reportedly attempting to retake towns in the area from rebel groups, and the camp’s residents were caught in the crossfire, despite their insistence that there was no rebel presence in the camp at all.

Two particularly devastating incidents lent renewed urgency to the camp’s plight in 10/2016. First, air strikes on 10/6 led to the death of an 18-mo.-old Palestinian baby, followed by 2 men later that day. In response, camp residents marched through the streets on 10/11 to call for an end to the shelling and for safe passage in and out of the camp so they could obtain medical and other supplies. Their call was ignored, and further air strikes killed 4 Palestinian refugees and 1 Syrian woman on 10/18. The victims were reportedly attempting to flee along the unpaved Zaki Road, nicknamed “Death Road” because of its frequent targeting by air strikes and sniper fire. One aid worker, who asked not to be identified by name, said that “families that want to go out, or refugees who want to go get bread or medicine, use this bumpy road only at night, risking both crashes and shelling” (Electronic Intifada, 10/25). In response to the shelling, UNRWA released (10/21) a statement saying that Khan Eshieh r.c. was “at risk of becoming another Yarmouk,” referring to the largest Palestinian r.c. in Syria, which the conflict there has all but destroyed. According to UNRWA, the 10/18 strike brought to 31 the number of Palestinian refugees killed in Khan Eshieh since the 5/2016 escalation of violence in the area.

Israeli interference in the Syrian civil war sparked a minor diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Tel Aviv this quarter. After the Israeli Air Force reportedly carried out air strikes against several Hezbollah positions in s. Syria late at night on 3/16, the Syrian govt. claimed that its forces had fired anti-aircraft missiles at the Israeli jets in response and downed 1 of them. The Israeli govt. said no aircraft was damaged and the IDF later reported that its Arrow anti-missile system had intercepted (3/16) a Syrian missile heading toward Israeli territory. The following day (3/17), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow summoned the Israeli amb. for questioning about the incident, which Syria’s permanent rep. to the UN, Bashar Ja‘afari, described (3/19) as a “clear message” Russian pres. Vladimir Putin was sending to Israel. “The fact is that the Israeli amb. was . . . told categorically that this game is over,” he said, referring to the incident. The next day (3/20), Syrian pres. Bashar al-Asad indicated he was relying on Russia to play “an important role” in preventing a military conflict between Syria and Israel. PM Netanyahu reiterated the Israeli position on 3/21: “If there’s intelligence and operational feasibility, we strike, and we will continue to do so.” Through the rest of the quarter, the status quo held, despite Israeli strikes (4/23) against a pro-govt. militia nr. Qunaytra. The Israelis claimed this was in response to errant projectiles fired into Israel, and that they had struck (4/27) ammunition depots nr. the Damascus airport.


The IDF continued to interfere in the Syrian civil war this quarter, particularly during one significantly violent week in late 6/2017. On 6/24, after 10 errant projectiles fired from Syria landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Israeli fighter jets launched air strikes on the purported site of the projectile fire, reportedly killing 2 Syrian soldiers. The IDF attacked sites in Syria in response to errant fire on each of the next 2 days, but there were no reports about injuries or damage. On 6/27, the IDF declared an area along the border a closed military zone, barring most civilians from entering (although farm workers were allowed to remain). They reopened the area on 6/28, and 3 more days of minor cross-border violence followed, with no reports of injuries or damage.

A few weeks later, news broke that Israeli diplomats were in talks with Russian, U.S., and Jordanian interlocutors about another possible cease-fire in the Syrian conflict. On the sidelines of a meeting of the G20 on 7/7, U.S. pres. Trump and Russian pres. Vladimir Putin announced an agreement that beginning on 7/9, Russian troops, in coordination with U.S. and Jordanian forces, would enforce a cease-fire in 3 regions of southwestern Syria nr. the borders with Israel and Jordan. U.S. secy. of state Tillerson called (7/7) the deal “our first success.”

Although Israeli diplomats were involved in the talks leading to the agreement, the Israeli govt. was displeased with the result. Israeli PM Netanyahu criticized (7/16) it for allowing Iranian and Hezbollah forces to continue operating in southwestern Syria. “The agreement as it is now is very bad,” another senior Israeli official said. “It doesn’t take almost any of Israel’s security interests [into account] and it creates a disturbing reality in s. Syria” (Haaretz, 7/16). In response to Netanyahu’s public criticism, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov said (7/17) that Russia and the U.S. would do what they could to address Israeli concerns. Two weeks later, after further talks, Tillerson updated (8/2) the U.S. position, saying that the U.S. would only cooperate with Russia in Syria if Iranian forces left the country: “They must leave and go home, whether those are [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)] forces or whether those are paid militias, foreign fighters, that Iran has brought into Syria in this battle.” Negotiations between all parties continued through the end of the quarter.

The Israeli govt.’s discontent with last quarter’s U.S- and Russia-backed cease-fire in southwestern Syria, which went into effect on 7/9 (see JPS 47 [1]), persisted throughout the quarter. It manifested in repeated IDF strikes on Hezbollah targets and other sites affiliated with the Syrian govt. and in an increasingly energetic diplomatic campaign against Iran’s influence in Syria.

The IDF carried out a handful of highprofile strikes on Hezbollah forces and Syrian govt.-controlled sites in the opening weeks of the quarter. On 9/7, the Israeli Air Force bombarded a chemical weapons plant nr. Masyaf, killing 2 people and damaging at least 5 major buildings, according to the international press. The attack, which was much more destructive than earlier Israeli operations, prompted a response from both Hezbollah and the Lebanese govt. On 9/9, Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced plans to file an “urgent complaint” against Israel at the UN Security Council (UNSC), contending that Israeli planes violated Lebanese air space. Hezbollah, for its part, reportedly sent backchannel messages to Israel expressing a desire not to escalate hostilities in the wake of the strikes. However, Israeli forces launched another assault on 9/22, this time targeting a site outside Damascus International Airport. Later in the quarter, a Syrian antiaircraft battery fired on Israeli jets flying in Lebanese air space (10/16), according to the Lebanese and international news reports. Israeli forces then targeted the battery with an air strike, causing a disputed amount of damage (the IDF said the battery was destroyed, while the Syrian army said it only suffered minor damage). After the exchange, the Syrian army warned (10/16) Israel of “dangerous consequences” should Israeli forces continue their forays into Syria.

Amid the escalating tension over Israel’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, there were numerous reports of increasing Iranian involvement in s. Syria. These reports, which detailed alleged Iranian plans to build an airfield nr. Damascus where its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could establish a more formal presence, played to Israeli govt. fears about Iran’s intentions in the region and lent credence to complaints about the 7/9 cease-fire (see JPS 47 [1]), with Iranian statements underscoring the tension. On a visit to Damascus on 10/18, Iranian gen. Mohammad Baqeri said, “We are in Damascus to assert and coordinate and cooperate to confront our common enemies, the Zionists and terrorists.” Furthermore, the Associated Press reported (9/23) that the Iranian govt. and Hezbollah were working together to broker a rapprochement between Hamas and the Syrian govt., its former patron (Hamas was based in Syria until the outbreak of war in 2011).

Two bouts of cross-border violence ratcheted up tensions even more. On 10/19, a mortar fired from inside Syria landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, causing no damage or injuries. Israeli tanks then fired (10/19) on a Syrian army position nr. the Israeli-occupied town of Qunaytra. Two days later, 5 projectiles fired from s. Syria landed in an open area in n. Israel, again causing no damage or injuries. The IDF then shelled 3 Syrian army targets nr. the border area. “Even if this is just spillover, this is an exceptional incident and the continuance of such events will be met with a more fierce Israeli response,” the IDF said (10/21). The Syrian govt. filed a complaint with the UN, accusing the Israelis of coordinating with local “terror groups.” In an unusual escalation, Israeli DM Lieberman accused (10/23) Hezbollah of perpetrating the 10/21 attack. Later, Israeli defense sources said (10/23) that they could not certify Lieberman’s claim. “The remarks reflect the minister’s best judgment,” one official said.

Meanwhile, the Israelis were appealing to both the U.S. and Russia to alter the terms of the 7/9 cease-fire so as to marginalize Iran and its allies, to little avail. On 11/11, meeting on the sidelines of an economic conference in Da Nang, Vietnam, U.S. pres. Trump and Russian pres. Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement. They reaffirmed the 7/7 agreement that had resulted in the 7/9 cease-fire, decided to “maintain open military channels of communication,” agreed to continue their efforts “until the final defeat of ISIS is achieved,” and, in the closest provision to a concession to the Israeli position, they called for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination, of foreign forces and foreign fighters” in Syria.

With conflicting reports and wide-ranging speculation surrounding the statement, it was unclear exactly what such a reduction would entail. Some reports stated it applied to Iranian-backed groups. Others suggested those groups would have to shift positions. One Israeli official said what had been agreed was that the groups in question would be permitted to maintain positions as close as 5–7 km from the border with Israel. “Even though we view favorably the agreement on the need to eliminate the foreign forces— namely, the Iranian forces, Hezbollah and the [Shi‘ite] militias from the area, the test will be on the ground, not in words but in deeds,” Israel’s intelligence minister Yisrael Katz commented (11/13). That same day, Netanyahu said that the IDF would continue operating in Syria “in accordance with our security needs” and with “the right combination of firmness and responsibility.” As a U.S. delegation arrived (11/14) in Israel for talks on the TrumpPutin statement and the future of Iran-backed groups in Syria, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov responded to Netanyahu. Iran had a “legitimate” presence in Syria, he said, and Russia would not commit to the removal of Iranian forces or Iran-backed groups.

Ongoing Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war stoked tensions with Israel, testing the uneasy cease-fire in southern Syria that the United States and Russia brokered in the summer of 2017 (see JPS 47 [1] and [2]). Israeli jets flew into Syrian air space to conduct air strikes on Syrian government, Hezbollah, or Iranian military sites at a rate of approximately one per week (see Chronology). Occasionally these sorties were regarded as retaliation for rocket fire into northern Israel (e.g., 12/3–4), but more frequently they were unprovoked attacks. After one such strike on 1/9, Netanyahu explained, “We have a longstanding policy to prevent the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Syrian territory. This policy has not changed. We back it up, if necessary, with action.”

The Israeli destabilization campaign climaxed this quarter in a dramatic exchange of violence on 2/10. In the morning, an IDF helicopter destroyed a drone that had allegedly flown into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights (Iranian officials denied any connection to the drone, and the Syrian government said the drone never crossed the border). The Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out a number of air strikes on a Syrian air base near Palmyra, where the drone allegedly originated, causing unspecified damage and injuries. During the attack, Syrian air defense systems shot down an Israeli F-16, seriously injuring the pilot. The IAF then carried out the “biggest and most significant attack . . . against Syrian air defenses” since 1982, according to a senior IAF official. Israeli jets struck twelve Syrian and Iranian targets in southern Syria, killing at least 6 people and causing extensive damage. “We are willing, prepared and capable to exact a heavy price from anyone that attacks us,” said an IDF spokesperson later in the day. “However we are not looking to escalate the situation.”

Following the exchange, Israel’s UN ambassador Danny Danon called for the UNSC to “put an end to Iranian provocations,” and UN secretary-general António Guterres called for an immediate de-escalation. There was no further escalation of violence through the end of the quarter, and Israeli concerns shifted west to southern Lebanon (see “Lebanon” below).

In the wake of a deadly exchange of violence on 2/10 (see JPS 47 [3]), tensions along the Israel-Syria border remained high. The Israeli government was increasingly willing to take both military action against Iranian forces supporting the Syrian government as well as credit for the attacks. Against a backdrop of growing uncertainty around the U.S. presence in Syria, and its commitment to the 7/14/2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA; see “Iran” below), the Israeli Air Force (IAF) conducted a series of missions targeting Iranian troops and infrastructure in Syria this quarter. The campaign culminated in major attacks on 4/9, 4/29, and in the immediate aftermath of U.S. president Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the deal on 5/8.

Just six days after a drone flew (2/10) from Syria into Israel and the Israelis retaliated with air strikes on 12 Syrian and Iranian targets in southern Syria, Prime Minister Netanyahu met (2/16) with UN secretary-general Guterres and protested Iranian activities in Syria. He said that Israel would not allow Iran to establish a military presence in close proximity to its territory and warned that the Israeli army would act against any attempt to do so. Two days later, he again threatened military action in a speech at the Munich Security Conference. Holding a piece of the aforementioned drone, he said, “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”

After a relatively uneventful 3/2018, Trump shocked the international community and many in his administration when he announced, at a rally on 3/29, that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria was imminent. “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS,” he said. “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” Although State Department officials later clarified that they were unaware of any withdrawal plans, the Israeli prime minister was clearly concerned. He spoke with Trump by phone on 4/3, and according to a White House statement, Trump “reiterated the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security and the two leaders agreed to continue their close coordination on countering Iran’s malign influence and destabilizing activities.” Two White House officials described the call as “tense.”

Events in early 4/2018 tested the purported U.S. resolve. First, there were reports of a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Duma, outside Damascus, on 4/7 when some 40 people died of symptoms consistent with chemical weapons. Although Syrian state media denied that any such attack had taken place and it was unclear who was responsible, the reports put Trump in the position of having to respond. (He ordered a military strike against Syrian forces after a similar attack was reported in 4/2017). Second, Israel conducted air strikes on an airbase outside Homs on 4/9, killing 14 people, allegedly including at least 7 Iranians.

The strikes on 4/9, made without Israel first informing the Russian government, exacerbated existing tensions between the major international players in the Syrian conflict. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called (4/9) the Israeli strikes a “dangerous development,” and the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned (4/10) the Israeli ambassador for questioning. Russian president Vladimir Putin reportedly called Netanyahu (4/11) and urged him not to take any further steps against Iran in Syria. With the prospect of a Russian response looming, Trump worked with the United Kingdom and France to organize and execute (4/13) air strikes on Syrian government research, storage, and military targets near Homs and in Damascus on 4/13. The strikes, which caused unspecified damage and casualties, prompted the Russian ambassador to the United States to threaten “consequences.” However, the attack was widely seen as limited in order not to provoke Russia into escalating the conflict any further.

Iran and Israel, meanwhile, made explicit threats to do just that. After an unnamed Israeli official admitted (4/16) that Israel was responsible for the 4/9 attack, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry said (4/16), “The occupying Zionist regime will, sooner or later, receive an appropriate response to its actions.” Israeli defense minister Lieberman countered (4/16) that Israel would not allow Russia to impose constraints on its response to any Iranian counterattack from Syria. “We will not allow Iranian consolidation in Syria,” he added. At the same time, Lieberman said that Israeli diplomats were in constant contact with their Russian counterparts to ease “friction” over their opposing stances on Syria.

Two weeks after the joint U.S., UK, and French strikes in Syria, the Israelis attacked again, conducting air strikes on Syrian army facilities near Hama and north of the Aleppo International Airport late at night on 4/29; 26 people were killed, including at least 11 Iranian troops, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). U.S. officials later said (5/2) that the strike came after Iranian forces transferred a shipment of anti-aircraft missiles to one of the targeted facilities. One source claimed that some 200 missiles were destroyed (New York Times, 4/30). The strike ratcheted up tensions to the point that a senior U.S. official stated, “On the list of the potentials for most likely live hostility around the world, the battle between Israel and Iran in Syria is at the top” (NBC News, 5/2).

Trump’s 5/8 decision to pull the United States out of the 7/14/2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran sparked another exchange of cross-border violence. Within an hour of the announcement, Israeli forces attacked a military base south of Damascus known to house Iranian troops; 15 people were killed, including 8 Iranians, according to SOHR. The Israeli army also went on high alert and instructed local authorities in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights to prepare bomb shelters. The long-awaited Iranian counterattack came the next day. Iranian forces fired (5/9) approximately 20 Grad and Fajr-5 rockets toward Israel. Most fell short of the border, and the remaining few were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Israel’s air force then retaliated again, bombing dozens of Iranian weapons storage, logistics, and intelligence sites across Syria. According to SOHR, 27 people were killed, including 19 Iranians. Later, Israeli sources called the barrage the largest Israeli military operation in Syria since 1974. The Syrian army claimed that only three people had been killed but acknowledged that the strikes marked a “new phase” of direct conflict with Israel.

Also of note: The Israeli government lifted its gag order on the Israeli press reporting that Israel was responsible for the bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility in 9/2007 (see JPS 37 [2]). Although it was widely known that Israel was behind the attack, this marked the first time the Israeli government openly admitted it. “The courageous decision of the Israeli government almost 11 years ago [. . .] sends a clear message,” Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz tweeted (3/21).

Devastation in Yarmouk Refugee Camp

For the first time in two years (see JPS 45 [4]), there was a surge of violence in Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus. Once home to the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees in Syria and approximately 160,000 residents overall, the camp’s population plummeted after the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. According to UNRWA, only around 12,000 residents remained this quarter, including approximately 6,200 Palestinian refugees. With humanitarian conditions in the camp already dire, renewed fighting put residents at further risk.

In what the Syrian government claimed was an effort to retake territory under ISIS control and solidify control over the area around Damascus, Syrian army troops began an “intensive bombardment” of Yarmouk refugee camp on 4/19, according to a 4/24 report at the Electronic Intifada. After five straight days of fighting in the camp, the PLO called (4/23) for an end to the bombing. “The humanitarian situation in Yarmouk and surrounding areas has long been very harsh and is rapidly deteriorating,” said an UNRWA spokesperson on 4/25. “Supplies of food and medicine are running low. There is no running water and very little electricity. Healthcare options are limited and there are no doctors remaining in the area.”

However, the fighting continued. By the end of 4/2018, the Syrian army had retaken approximately 60 percent of the camp and approximately 3,500 Palestinian refugees were able to escape (Al Jazeera, 4/29). At the same time, the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria reported (5/1) that at least 15 civilians had been killed since 4/19. A small armed group, Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate, agreed (5/1) to evacuate the approximately 15 percent of the camp it controlled and to retreat to Idlib province, but it was unclear if the violence would ebb by the end of the quarter.


Following a series of increasingly deadly skirmishes between Iranian-backed forces and Israeli troops in southwest Syria last quarter (see JPS 47 [4]), the Iranian role in the ongoing Syrian civil war took center stage. As low-level cross-border violence continued, the Israelis embarked on an inconclusive diplomatic initiative to convince Iran’s allies in Russia to secure the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria.

Israel’s position had always been that “there is no room for any Iranian military presence in any part of Syria,” Israeli PM Netanyahu told the Knesset on 5/28. Initially, the Russians had remained neutral on the issue, but in a major reversal, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov responded on the same day saying that (5/28) Syrian forces alone should have a presence on the border with Israel. “All non-Syrian forces should be withdrawn on a reciprocal basis,” he added. Israeli security and diplomatic sources attributed the Russian reversal to the particularly deadly Israeli attack in Syria on 5/10 (Haaretz, 5/28).

After Israeli DM Lieberman flew to Moscow for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, on 5/31, there were reports that the two had found common ground. According to Asharq Al Awsat, Shoigu gave Israel the “green light” to operate in Syria as long as the Israeli army did not target Syrian army positions (6/1). He reportedly also pledged that Iranian and Hezbollah troops would pull back at least 20 kilometers from Syria’s border with Israel, with the ultimate goal being to retreat at least 70 kilometers. The next day, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, confirmed that Russia and Israel had reached some form of understanding. “At this point, I cannot answer if it is being realized, but as far as I understand, the parties that were involved in reaching an agreement are satisfied with what they have achieved,” he said.

In 6/2018 and early 7/2018, the Syrian army was in the final stages of a campaign to retake control of southwestern Syria from a variety of rebel groups. The Israeli army carried out air strikes on anti-regime Iranian and Hezbollah positions on at least five occasions (6/17, 6/25, 7/6, 7/8, and 7/11; see Chronology).

With tensions rising along the Israel-Syria border, Netanyahu met with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 7/11, marking their ninth meeting since Russia’s direct military involvement in Syria in 9/2015. Netanyahu claimed (7/12) that Putin had committed to pulling Iranian, Hezbollah, and allied forces “tens of kilometers” away from the Syria-Israel border. Netanyahu added that he had made it clear to Putin that Israel did “not object” to Syrian pres. Bashar al-Asad retaking control of Syria, a top Russian priority in the region. “The heart of the matter is preserving our freedom of action against anyone who acts against us,” Netanyahu said (7/12). One senior Israeli official said that the Netanyahu-Putin meeting created a “realistic opportunity” to “push Iran out of Syria.”

When Netanyahu met (7/23) with Lavrov in Jerusalem a week later, an ancillary issue came up. In addition to ground forces, the Israelis wanted Russia to secure the removal of all Iranian weapons. “The removal of Iran must include the removal of long-range weapons, halting the production of precision weapons as well as the air defenses that protect the missiles, and the closure of border crossings that permit smuggling of this weaponry to Lebanon and to Syria,” a senior Israeli official said (7/23). The Russians, he added, definitely had the ability to do this, saying, “They are a significant factor in Syria.”

Finally, two days after the Syrian army successfully regained control of southwestern Syria, including the region adjacent to the Syria-Israel border, Putin’s Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev said (8/1) that the bulk of the Iranian forces and all heavy weapons had withdrawn to at least 85 kilometers from the Israel-Syria border. He indicated that Iranian military advisors remained embedded with Syrian troops in the area, “but there are no units of heavy equipment and weapons that could pose a threat to Israel at a distance of 85 kilometers from the line of demarcation.”

85 kilometers from the line of demarcation.” The Israelis were apparently dissatisfied with the new arrangement, and low-level skirmishes continued through the end of the quarter (see Chronology). “What we have laid down as a red line is military intervention and entrenchment by Iran in Syria, and not necessarily on our border,”said Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (Reuters, 8/1). “There’ll be no compromises nor concessions on this matter.”

Devastation in Yarmouk

In the context of the Syrian army’s campaign to regain control of southwestern Syria, government troops mounted a final assault against the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk, once home to the largest population of Palestinian refugees in Syria, on 5/21. The intensive bombardment that began on 4/19 (see JPS 47 [4]), coming after seven years of siege, left the camp in ruins, “with hardly a house untouched by the conflict,” according to UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness on 5/21. “The public health system, water, electricity, [and] basic services [necessary] for life are severely damaged. The debris of this pitiless conflict is everywhere. In that environment, it is hard to see how people can go back,” he added.

                The Qunaytra crossing connecting Syria to the occupied Golan Heights and to Jordan re-opened (10/15) for the first time in 4 year in October. The crossing closed down in 2014 when United Nations (UN) observers left due to the escalating violence in the area as the Syrian civil war unfolded. The re-opening of the border allows UN peacekeepers to return under a mandate established in 1974 to monitor the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights. Qunaytra opened as Israel continued to attack targets in Syria (see Israel).

              On 21 March, U.S. president Donald Trump tweeted that his administration was recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (see United States). After President Trump signed the official proclamation, the Syrian mission to the United Nations (UN) called for an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council (UNSC). The Syria government responded by releasing a statement, saying that Syria is determined to recover the Golan Heights “through all available means.” At the UNSC meeting, 14 out of 15 members of the council condemned the Trump administration’s recognition (see United Nations). Tensions between Syria and Israel have been high this quarter since Israel has continued its air strikes on Syrian territory (see Israel).

               Israel continued bombing targets in Syria this quarter after Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted to bombing targets in Syria in January for the 1st time (see Israel 1 January- 30 March 2019). The 1st bombing this quarter was in April when Israeli jets, according to Syria, injured 6 Syrian soldiers and destroyed several buildings in the Hama Province. In May, Israel acknowledged bombing Syrian positions in Quneitra on 27 May, killing 1 Syrian soldier and injuring 1 other. On 1 June, a missile fired from Syria hit a ski resort in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, causing damage to a ski lift. Israel acknowledged that it had hit a target in Syria, which, according to Syrian media, killed 3 Syrian soldiers and injured 7 others. 2 days later, Israel, according to Syrian state media, hit the T-4 air base near Homs, believed to house Syrian, Russian, and Iranian military personnel and equipment. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an UK-based organization linked to the Syrian opposition, said that at least 5 were killed in the airstrike, including Syrian soldiers.

               While Israel continued its campaign in Syria, the remains of an Israeli soldier killed in 1982 were returned to Israel from Syria on 3 April. Russia played a role in retrieving the body, which was found in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. While Syria denied having anything to do with retrieving the remains of the Israeli soldier, Israel later in April released 2 Syrian Fatah operatives to Syria as a “gesture of goodwill.”

               Israeli attacks on Syria continued in the very beginning of this quarter. In the early hours of 7/1, Israeli fighter jets struck several targets near Homs and Damascus, killing 16 people, including 10 civilians, amongst them a toddler. Later in July on 7/22, Israeli forces assassinated 1 member of Hezbollah near Quneitra using a missile strike; 1 toddler standing near the explosion was also said to have been killed. 2 days later on 7/24, Israel struck a Syrian army base in Tel al-Hara, injuring 6 and damaging targets near Damascus and Quneitra. Israel again struck a target in Quneitra on 8/1, causing damage but no injuries. Then on 8/24, Israel acknowledged striking 1 private villa near Damascus, killing 3 people in what Israel authorities said was to prevent an Iranian drone strike on Israel. Israel rarely acknowledges when it conducts attacks outside of the West Bank and Gaza. The last attack in Syria this quarter was followed by an intense conflict with Lebanon.

Quarterly Updates for (1 Jan 1970 — 1 Jan 1970)

The Palestinian community’s fate in the ongoing conflict in Syria appeared increasingly precarious this quarter. While humanitarian conditions in Yarmouk r.c. outside Damascus remained dire, renewed fighting nr. the Syrian capital put another predominantly Palestinian community, Khan Eshieh r.c., at risk. Fighting between armed rebel groups and Syrian govt. forces escalated nr. the camp late on 5/16, killing at least 12 people.