The Golan Heights: Avoiding an Unforced Error

A July 17, 2018 hearing in the United States House of Representatives considered the possibility of Washington recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. The hearing took up this issue months after it was first tabled by Republican Representative Ron DeSantis of Florida. At least one cabinet member of Israel’s government is calling on President Trump to follow up on his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel. If Mr. Trump takes this advice, he would inadvertently hand an unearned victory to Iran, the Assad regime, and Russia.

The Golan Heights figured prominently in the Israeli-Syrian “war of inches” between the armistice of 1949 and the war of June 1967. At stake was the control of a three-part demilitarized zone (DMZ) below and to the west of the Golan Heights in the Jordan River Valley. The DMZ consisted of patches of land that had been part of British Palestine. Syria had occupied them during the 1948 war and agreed to evacuate them in accordance with the 1949 armistice brokered by the United Nations, under the leadership of American diplomat Ralph Bunche. 

Bunche’s proposal was that the sovereignty of this three-part, 25 square mile DMZ be left undetermined pending peace talks. When it came time for implementation, however, Syria never withdrew entirely and Israel claimed full sovereignty. In the years between the 1948 and 1967 Syrian-Israeli wars, Israel advanced bit by bit into the DMZ. Shooting incidents in the Jordan Valley often escalated to Syrian artillery attacks from the Golan Heights and Israeli airstrikes on Syrian positions there. On the eve of the June 1967 war, Israel controlled nearly three-quarters of a three-part zone that was anything but demilitarized.

Once Israeli forces in June 1967 had driven Egypt from the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, and Jordan from Jerusalem and the West Bank, they turned to the balance of the DMZ and the Golan Heights. The Syrian defense of the seemingly impregnable Golan high ground was the responsibility of Air Force General Hafez al-Assad, the Minister of Defense. A politically ambitious officer who would rule Syria from 1970 to 2000 (and then pass the presidency to his son, Bashar), Assad presided over an ignominious defeat. Although some Syrian units put up determined resistance, the plan for defense of the plateau reflected distilled incompetence.

Forty-four years later, Assad’s son would take a giant step toward losing the Golan Heights for Syria permanently. For several months leading up to mid-March 2011, I had been shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus as a deputy to Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell. I had in my briefcase a draft Israeli-Syrian treaty of peace; a document I had composed with the help of a senior White House official. My objective was formal Israeli-Syrian peace: the phased, gradual withdrawal of Israel from all territory taken from Syria in 1967, and Syria’s complete geopolitical reorientation away from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas toward the West. Syrian implementation of treaty terms would be matched by the step-by-step lifting of American sanctions.

By early March 2011, I was reporting progress to my superiors in Washington. By the end of that month, the opportunity was evaporating. In a betrayal of cosmic magnitude, Bashar al-Assad chose mass homicide over the possibility of recovering for Syria the land lost by his father in 1967. By responding to peaceful protests of police brutality with lethal force, Assad gradually erased any claim he may have had to governing legitimacy. As March turned to April and April to May, it was clear to Washington and Jerusalem that Assad had forfeited his right to speak for Syrians on matters of war and peace. That forfeiture has been confirmed by over seven years of Assad regime war crimes, enthusiastically supported by Iran and Russia.

If I were a betting man and forced to make a wager, my money would be on the proposition that the Assads—father and son—have lost the Golan Heights forever. The policy question, however, is whether any good could come now of American recognition of Israeli sovereignty. The answer is no.

Nearly all Syrians—including those who oppose Assad strenuously and who are thankful for Israeli humanitarian assistance to terrified Syrian civilians in the country’s southwest—believe that the Golan is Syrian and should someday revert entirely to Syria. For anti-Assad Syrians, American recognition of Israel’s sovereignty would be a gratuitous insult: confirmation in their eyes that Washington is resigned to Iranian domination of Syria through the Assad family in perpetuity.

Indeed, such an American declaration would be welcomed by Iran, its Syrian client, and Russia. 

For Tehran it would provide additional justification, motivation, and recruits for building a new “resistance front” in Syria along the eastern fringes of the Golan Heights: a front that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be unable and unwilling to preempt or prevent, notwithstanding his recent empty assurances to President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

For Assad, it would be a lifeline. Not only would his Syrian opponents be disheartened and demoralized by the American action, but he would be able indefinitely to claim victimization instead of facing eventual accountability. He would tell Syrians that Washington’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty “proves” the empty insincerity of previous American mediation efforts, and “confirms” the role of the United States in the initial loss of the Golan Heights in 1967. He would sell his victimhood to Europeans, already feeling pressure to lavish reconstruction funds on his entourage lest Syria start hemorrhaging migrants in the direction of Turkey and Western Europe again.

For Russia, it would be a gift. It would further marginalize American influence inside Syria and give the Kremlin additional ammunition in its strategic efforts to break the Western alliance and to blackmail Europe into funding Syrian reconstruction—a $300 billion proposition—through the kleptocratic Assad regime.

Yes, I do think it is likely that the Assad family has lost the Golan forever. Even if Iran and Russia reestablish him in all of Syria, no Israeli leader would, given what has happened over the past seven years, negotiate peace with him. Indeed, with Assad in the picture the key address for security issues in southwest Syria will be in Tehran, not Damascus.

Over the past several years, Israelis with whom I established relationships of trust and confidence while in government have often asked me, “What can Israel do to help in Syria?” With its humanitarian aid and its push-back against Iranian aggression, Israel has already done a lot. If it wishes to do more, it can issue the following official statement: “If and when Assad and Iran depart, and legitimate, representative governance comes to Syria, Israel will be prepared to negotiate full peace between the governments and the peoples of Israel and Syria. The price for peace will be high. Assuming full reciprocity, Israel will not be found lacking.”

Without for a moment discounting the solid, 51-year attachment of the Israeli people to the open spaces and beauty of the Golan Heights, the effects of pressuring an American President into recognizing Israel’s title to the property would not be positive. American policy toward Syria has been a compendium of negative, unintended consequences. Adding to the list would be bad for the home team and bad for Israel. Avoiding an unforced error would be cost-free. The alternative would not.

Frederic C. Hof is a faculty member of Bard Colleges and a senior nonresident fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: An armed man rides a pickup truck at the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu ISRAEL OUT.