Opportunity Beckons on the Golan Heights in Aftermath of Syrian Civil War

The regional changes are an opportunity to begin an international process to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan and to significantly strengthening the settlements there

IDF soldiers on the Golan Heights (Photo - Matt Hechter Flash 90)

The Golan’s border, that for years was characterized by a pastoral quiet, has changed. It has now entered a new period where it will become Israel’s central security arena, whether overtly or covertly.

Besides tactical responses aimed to prevent weapon transfers, Israel has chosen to watch the Syrian Civil War from the sidelines. This as opposed to the other countries in the region who have figured out that the current circumstances give them opportunity to influence the shape of things to come. The de facto collapse of Syria presents Israel with a significant challenge to reshape its northern border for the coming decades. Unfortunately, Israel has not met this challenge. The good news is that it is not too late.

Developments, such as the intensification of the Iranian tone towards Israel in the Syrian arena, warning that it will not allow Israel freedom of action in Syrian airspace; Iran’s ambition to create areas of control to the east of the Golan; the attempts of Assad’s forces to shoot down Israeli fighter jets and the increased firing of rockets upon the Golan, which can now only questionably be described as “a trickle” – all these should be an urgent wake-up call to Israel to adopt a new national strategy in the Golan Heights

An alliance with Syrian-Kurds

The collapse of Syria and it not returning to operate as a single state under a central government is a clear Israeli interest. Syria turning into a Russian-Iranian protectorate and the probable return of Assad as its leader puts the Syrian demand of an Israeli retreat from the Golan Heights back on the agenda, only this time, it comes with a completely different set of complicated interests. By increasing the use of state sponsored militias and terror organizations, Iran will try to challenge Israel from Syria in a number of ways including the possibility of constant rocket fire upon the Golan turning the “trickle” into a regular “drip.”

It is questionable whether, over time, Israel will be able to remain indifferent to rocket fire and attacks such as these. Lacking any strategic partnerships with states or minorities, who could help Israel create a cooling effect in the region, Israel is likely to find itself dragged into military operations on its northern border.

In order to ensure the decentralization of Syria, Israel must make groundbreaking partnerships with minorities and populations in the area who share an interest in stopping Iranian control over Syria. One of the real options is cooperation with Syrian Kurds who are centered in Rojava in Northeast Syria. The Syrian Kurds have significantly increased their territory during the fighting in Syria and now control around 20% of the country’s territory. In addition, the proportion of Druze in the Syrian population has now grown to around 15%.

The establishment of cooperation between Israel and the Syrian Kurds would be an alliance between two determined and unpopular nations in the Middle East who share common interests and posses a history of working together without any religious or cultural conflict. Kurdish autonomy in Northeast Syria would make it very hard for Iran to hold a contiguous territory through Syria until Quneitra in the Golan. It would prevent Syria from returning to operate as a unified country and would encourage additional ethnic groups to fight the minority Alawite regime.

Israel can contribute to the establishment of Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria by convincing the United States to not pull its forces from Syria after the defeat of ISIS, or to at least declare a no fly zone over Rojava, similar to what the US did at the beginning of the last decade for the Kurds in Iraq. Without this step, the retreat of American forces from Rojava would put the independence of the swath of land in danger and is likely to open the way for full Iranian control over Syria.


Mortar Shells falling on the Israeli Golan (Basel Aweidat, Flash 90)


Leaving behind the “deposit” mindset

The question mark that has hovered for many decades over Israeli sovereignty in the Golan is not going away. In fact, just the opposite. Discussion of the matter has increased as part of international attempts to return quiet to Syria. In the 50 years that have passed since Israel conquered the Golan, the real possibility of a retreat has risen on average every eight years.

In 2008, with Erdogan mediating, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered a retreat from the Golan. In 2010, according to Frederick Hoff, Obama’s envoy to Syria and Lebanon, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed his preparedness to compromise on the Golan under the assumption that it could help weaken Iranian influence in Syria. A few months afterwards, the civil war broke out.

The possibility of a retreat from the Golan has not been dropped from the agenda even after fighting in Syria erupted. During the 2014 Geneva Conference led by the United States and Russia in the hopes of reaching a peace deal in Syria, the demand for an Israeli retreat from the Golan was discussed as part of an international deal to end the Syrian crisis and to create a new regional order. Even today, in the context of the negotiations that are being held between the United States and Russia along with Syrian officials, the possibility of changing the regional reality in the Golan was discussed as part of considering “the day after” the Syrian war.

In the last few years, we have witnessed a number of regional changes that can pave the way to a new Israeli approach to the Golan. Among these changes, the Syrian Civil War, and as a consequence, the Israeli internalization of what the results of a retreat would have been and an ensuing consensus against a withdrawal, Solidification of Iranian presence in Syria, the attempts by Syria and Iran to provoke Israel in the Golan, the nuclear deal with Iran that made the Iranian conventional threat against Israel much more real, the American-Saudi alliance and above all else, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, signifying a change in American policy that corresponds to reality and does not try to force a reality that does not exist.

All these changes should signal to Israel that it must begin a quiet yet significant diplomatic campaign with decision makers in the United States and in Europe to achieve recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan. It should center on the removal of the “deposit” mindset, according to which the Golan is a temporary “deposit” for Israel who is merely waiting for Syria to decide to receive it back and convincing the west that Israeli sovereignty is an international interest.

Here to Stay

The fact that at the jubilee year of Israeli control over the Golan, 36 of which the Golan is under Israeli sovereignty, there is not yet a Jewish majority on the Golan is an embarrassment to successive Israeli governments. In its 50 years of control over the Golan, Israel has succeeded in settling slightly more than 20,000 Jews there. Over the years, Israel has seen the Golan as having a dual purpose. On the one hand it is a “deposit” in the case of peace and on the other hand, a future arena of war. As a result, the Golan has remained a frozen, remote, agriculturally focused area, cut off from Israel’s vision for development and the “Startup Nation.”

The time has come for Israel to set a goal of settling 50 thousand Jews in the Golan by 2030. The Israeli government needs to adopt a multi-year plan that will create facts on the ground. Alongside tourism and farming in the Golan, Katzrin needs to become a vibrant, advanced and developed urban center that offers diverse and advanced employment opportunities in the fields of technology and commerce. National assets and academic institutions should be transferred to the Golan and the infrastructure in the area should be improved. Israel must convey a practical message that it is in the Golan to stay.

The significant regional changes that are taking place on the northern and eastern borders of the Golan require Israel to create a new strategy that will allow Israel to consolidate its sovereignty and strengthen its security.

Israel will not be able to long ignore the major changes taking place on its doorstep. As a regional power that is competing with other countries that aspire to regional hegemony, such as Iran and Turkey, it must initiate and respond to events by understanding the magnitude of the challenges and the opportunities that lie before it.

(Translated from Mida.org.il Hebrew)


The writer is the Director of the “Coalition for the Golan”

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