The Importance of the Golan Heights

Analysis: Jerusalem is likely to keep treating Syria as an extension of Iranian territory

Getty Images
April 5, 2019

Like the decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, President Donald Trump's recent recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights came as a surprise to many, even if the matter had already gathered steam on Capitol Hill in recent years. It was one of the least publicly discussed aspects of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first meeting with Trump at the White House in February 2017. So why is the Golan so important?

The Golan Heights and the area Israel came to occupy from Syria in 1967 is a rocky, elevated plateau that ranges in height from 400 to 1,700 feet. Mount Hermon in the north marks the high point, standing at 9,232 feet tall, and it contains an Israel Defense Forces strategic observation post. The Golan also overlooks the Sea of Galilee and the Hula Valley, which is Israel's richest agricultural land. Two of the main water sources for the Jordan River—the Dan and the Banias—come from the slopes of Mt. Hermon. Damascus is only 40 miles away from the Israeli-held territory.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the June 1967 War—the same war where Israel took the Sinai from Egypt, and the West Bank and Gaza from Jordan and Egypt respectively. The territory that came under Israeli control represented less than 1 percent of Syrian land area, yet under Syria's control it served as a forward operating position where artillery regularly shelled northern Israel, and the Palestinian Fatah organization launched regular cross-border raids. Israel annexed the territory in 1981, but the international community didn't recognize the move.

An opening for Middle East peace came in November 1977 when, in an unprecedented move, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat spoke before the Israeli Knesset and created what became known as the land-for-peace formula in negotiations with Israel. Shortly thereafter, Egypt and Israel made peace, and Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula.

In March 1991, President George H. W. Bush told Congress, "The time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict." The United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower in the aftermath of the first Gulf war and sought to capitalize on the moment. The goal was to convene a regional meeting or conference designed to comprehensively settle the Arab-Israeli dispute based on U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which were passed in the wake of the 1967 and 1973 wars respectively.

Long considered the roadmap for Middle East peace, resolution 242 called for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" to "secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force." It also spoke of the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force." The resolution, however, didn't provide a formula for the depth of an Arab peace offer or the amount of territory Israel would return.

The Bush administration's Madrid Conference in 1991 paved the path for separate peace tracks between Israel, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinians, during the Clinton administration. Having given up its claim in 1988 on what became known as the West Bank (as it was on the west bank of the Jordan River), Jordan became the second Arab state to make peace with Israel in 1994.

When Israel began negotiations with Syria shortly after the Madrid Conference, the assumption was that a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights meant an Israeli withdrawal to the 1923 international border. Throughout the 1990s, however, Syria's territorial demands expanded. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad wanted a "full withdrawal," including the caveat that the pullout should be "to the June 4, 1967 line." He also added the requirement of Syrian "access to the Sea of Galilee." By 2000, Assad insisted upon "shared sovereignty over the lake."

There are several differences between the 1923 international border that Britain and France drew between their mandates and the June 4, 1967 line. The 1923 border was drawn so that all the Sea of Galilee would be within Britain's mandate, which later became Israel. On the other hand, the June 4, 1967 line was a situation, not a border. It exists on no official map. It was simply where the Israeli and Syrian forces were positioned on the eve of the 1967 war. The difference between the two amounted to 25 square miles.

The disparity in what would constitute a full Israeli withdrawal can still be seen today in how the territory is accounted for. According to Syria, the total area of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel is 580 square miles. Israel claims it is closer to 500 square miles. For its part, the CIA World Factbook puts the number far closer to Israel's view.

Whereas Syria was focused on maximizing the amount of territory it could regain in a peace agreement, Israel was focused on another key component created by the Egyptian standard for its peace deal: normalization of relations. Sadat's peace initiative was part of a comprehensive change in Egyptian policy, in which Sadat sought to prompt sweeping reforms for his country. He closed the door on the Soviet Union and made peace with Israel. It amounted to Egypt's fundamental strategic realignment.

The focus shifted away from the land-for-peace formula to a land-for-realignment calculation among many in Washington as well. By 2007, U.S. statesmen began promoting the notion that Syria and Iran were merely allies of convenience and that Syria could be flipped from the Iranian orbit. Both Hafez al-Assad during the 1990s and his son Bashar, who inherited Syria in 2000, showed no indication they were willing to part ways with Iran. And if Sadat had flown to Jerusalem to make peace with Israel, Hafez al-Assad refused to meet with any Israeli leaders throughout the decade of negotiations, even as he demanded more than 100 percent of the territory beyond the 1923 international border.

With the elder Assad at the helm, Syria remained Iran's junior partner, continued to occupy Lebanon, and helped Iran run its favorite terrorist arm, Hezbollah. However, Bashar transformed Syria's relationship with Iran to that of a client state, even transferring Syrian missiles to Hezbollah during the 2006 war between Israel and the terrorist group, rather than facilitating the transfer of Iranian weapons to Lebanon as was standard in the past. The Syrian civil war that began in 2011 completed this transformation, turning Assad into an Iranian-Hezbollah and Russian puppet, as they are responsible for saving and propping up his regime.

Any form of Syrian strategic realignment under Assad is extremely unlikely—at least for the foreseeable future. Russia's Middle East stock is on the ascent, and Syria is ground zero for its wider regional designs. Iran, for its part, is embarked on a Syrian entrenchment enterprise that stretches well beyond the military realm. And Hezbollah, which began its covert involvement in the Syrian war in 2012, has created a new "Golan Terror Network" under the leadership of Ali Musa Daqduq, a longtime senior Hezbollah operative and commander trained by IRGC Quds Force commander (and Israel's archenemy) Qassem Suleimani.

Ever since the inconclusive end to the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, analysts have predicted another round was bound to happen sooner than later. Iran is now able to extend the Lebanese front against Israel to Syria. For Iranian leaders—pledged to eventually wiping Israel off the map—their expanded ring around northern Israel and the Golan provides an expanded opportunity to strike at Israel should the Jewish state act against their nuclear program. Had Israel given up the Golan Heights in previous negotiations, Iran would also be poised on the strategic high ground, putting Israel at an even greater disadvantage.

Russia sees value in the Golan Heights for quite a different reason from Iran. They are anxious to cash in on international reconstruction funds meant to rebuild Syria. The problem is that the United States won't allow funding to flow through Assad. Putin is also interested in increasing his Middle East portfolio and standing. He likely sees the possibility of hosting a peace conference with Israel and Syria as a panacea. The process itself would legitimize Assad's rule in the eyes of the international community, open up the spigots for international funding, and increase Russia's regional role. More recently, Putin indicated he would like to play host to Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

Israel, however, already reached several agreements regarding how far Russia would keep Iranian or Iran-backed forces from Israel but has proven incapable of enforcing them. Until Iran is removed from Syria, or until a prohibitive cost is imposed on Israel, Jerusalem is likely to keep treating Syria as an extension of Iranian territory, which means one can expect Israel to continue to strike at Iranian logistical lines, weapons transfers, and at any high-ranking member of the IRGC, Quds Force, or Hezbollah who feels lucky enough to poke his head up.

Leading Republican senators will try to pass a resolution in support of the Trump administration's recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This effort is currently being led by Sens. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.). The president, however, has the right to proclaim the territory as Israeli on behalf of America. But as seen with President Trump's decision to undo the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran, what is given by one American president can be taken away by another.

Matthew R.J. Brodsky is a senior fellow at the Security Studies Group in Washington, D.C.