Move on the Golan Heights
By Douglas J.
March 27, 2019
Trump didn’t spell it out, but there’s a sound rationale for America’s
recognizing the Golan Heights as a permanent part of Israel.
has been an unhappy political experiment. It never secured for its multiethnic
population freedom, prosperity, or domestic tranquility. Aided by Iran and
Russia, the Bashar al-Assad regime has just won a long civil war through mass
murder of its own civilians (including by use of prohibited chemical weapons)
and by imposing on other countries millions of desperate, impoverished refugees.
Under the circumstances, there is no compelling reason for local or world powers
to remain committed to reassembling Syria as it existed before the civil war.
a rule, preserving borders is a good thing, a contribution to peace and
stability. But not always.
borders have spawned resentment and belligerence among the country’s leaders,
who have never respected the lines. They have continually used their military
forces or terrorist proxies to violate the sovereignty of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq,
Jordan, and Israel. In light of the disastrous domestic and international
history, it is reasonable to ask, What border changes might better serve the
interests of Syria’s people, neighboring states, and the world in general?
the Golan Heights is a sensible part of the answer.
Syria someday, with new leadership, seeks to reestablish official relations with
the United States, it will now have to do so on the understanding that Israeli
retention of the Golan is a closed issue. Syria’s new leadership would not
then be asked to humiliate itself by ceding the territory but only to recognize
that President Assad lost it permanently as one of the many consequences of the
know that the Assad regime prosecuted that war with brutality and is responsible
for the awful results. These include hundreds of thousands of dead Syrian
civilians, more than 6 million internally displaced people, and approximately 5
million international refugees. An additional result now is that the U.S.
government will never again pressure Israel to come down from the Heights.
is the Golan strategic, and how did Israel take it over?
like a steep, 3,000-foot wall from the northern and eastern shores of the Sea of
Galilee, the Golan Heights look down onto all of northern Israel to the
Mediterranean. Enemy artillery on the Golan could bombard those fertile Israeli
lowlands with precision. In Israel’s early years, as in the pre-state era,
Syrian gunners on the Heights often targeted Israeli farmers in the Galilee and
Lake Hula areas.
1967, in alliance with Egypt and Jordan, Syria threatened to plunge down from
the Golan Heights to strangle and overrun Israel. Skill, courage and luck
allowed Israel to conquer the Heights. For the past 52 years, it has retained
control, reducing the dangers of war. Only once, in 1973, did Syria try to win
the Golan back by force. The number of non-Israelis living there under Israeli
rule is small (approximately 20,000).
borders do not have deep roots in religion, culture, or history. They reflect
nothing profounder than the interests of France and Britain at a moment in the
early 20th century. In the Middle East, some countries, such as Egypt and
Persia, have long histories as independent powers. Syria is not one of them.
Like most of the Middle East, it was a region of the Turkish Empire for 400
years until British forces conquered it in 1917–18 during World War I. The
name “Syria,” like “Palestine” and “Mesopotamia,” was an ancient but
indefinite geographical term. Until the 1920 post–World War I peace
conference, there had never been a nation called “Syria.”
conference awarded France the mandate to administer Syria until self-government
could be achieved. At the same time, Britain received a similar mandate for
Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and another for Palestine (now Israel, the West Bank,
Gaza, and Jordan). At that time, no borders for these mandate territories had
yet been drawn.
protect local Christians, France carved out of western Syria a new country,
Lebanon. British officials bent Syria’s southern border so that the Jewish
settlement of Metulla would be within Palestine. In 1923, an Anglo-French
commission formally drew the Syria–Palestine border. This was the body that
allocated the Golan Heights entirely to Syria, though an earlier agreement had
put the Heights partially in Palestine.
world’s powers created the Syrian state and fixed its borders a century ago
after the Turkish Empire’s wartime collapse produced a major political vacuum
in the Middle East. Syria’s 2011–19 civil war, another major upheaval,
similarly obliges world leaders to help shape the region in the interests of
peace and stability.
Trump announced his new Golan policy without finesse, without customary
preliminaries, and by tweet. And the timing invited his critics to dismiss the
whole matter as a mere political favor for Israeli prime minister Benjamin
Netanyahu. But the new policy has merit.