Making Golan Israeli At Last
On March 21, 2019, President Trump tweeted his latest foreign policy idea. He thinks the U.S. should recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Sure, Trump did this partly to shore up Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister visits Washington next week, after which he faces an election and possible indictment. Otherwise, is the President just trolling the Establishment? Or does the idea make geopolitical sense?
First, a bit of history. The Golan (or Jawlan) is a plateau northeast of the Sea of Galilee. It borders Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. In Old Testament times, Golan was not settled by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, although it was part of the Kingdom of David and Solomon. In modern times, the Ottomans ruled it (as they did most of the Middle East) until after World War I. Then Golan became part of the French Mandate. The Syrians, post-independence, used it as a staging area and artillery base from which to attack northern Israel. The Jewish state put a stop to that in 1967, taking Golan during the Six-Day War.
Ever since, Syria has been trying to get it back, hoping someone would force Israel to abide by U.N. Resolution 242. This edict condemns acquiring territory by force (at least when Israelis do so). Of course, Israel not only kept Golan, but established settlements there. American administrations, except for Gerald Ford’s, have tended to express lukewarm support for 242. Now Trump, as he likes to do, is shaking things up. He recognizes matters in the Middle East are a lot different now than they were the year Sergeant Pepper came out. Two things, in particular, have changed over the decades. Syria is embroiled in a civil war. And one of the three largest countries in the region, Iran, works tirelessly for Israel’s destruction.
Assad Has His Plate Full
Bashar al-Assad’s government, with massive Iranian and Russian help, kept Syria from becoming a totally failed state. It has even managed to regain control over about two-thirds of the country. But the 25 percent of northeast Syria’s territory under Kurdish rule is gone for good. Also, al-Assad’s co-religionist Alawis will have a devil of a time recapturing the northwest. That area is dominated by Sunni fundamentalists, led by Hay`ah Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian branch of al Qaeda. Such don’t take kindly to rule by any variety of Shiite. Yes, ISIS’ caliphate may indeed have gone onto the rubbish heap of history. But the Damascus government will have its hands full for years trying to hold a rump Syria together.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been Syria’s main foreign supporter since the early 1980s. Hafiz al-Assad disguised his Alawi sect as Shiite, following Iran’s 1979 revolution, in order to get Iranian oil money. The ayatollahs were happy to gain a front against Israel and access to their puppets Hizbullah in Lebanon. Yes, Iran’s rulers vent their hate for Israel, mainly in order to appeal to Sunnis. But they are not trying to bring about the end of the world.
Admitting the Facts on the Ground
What better time for us to recognize another bit of reality in the region? Trump has been doing so since taking office. He rejected Obama’s pro-Iran tilt, in favor of America’s traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia. And he moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Recognizing Israeli rule of the Golan Heights makes sense right now for several reasons.
First, Iran has bases throughout Syria, and several within easy reach of northern Israel. (In fact, the IDF struck Iranian targets in Syria earlier this year.) Open American support for Israeli control of Golan will give Tehran pause.
Second, this is something the Russians will dislike. (Sorry, collusionistas.) They are active allies of both al-Assad and the Iranians.
Third, the Palestinians will get yet another signal that it’s time to make peace with Israel.
Fourth, this could ramp up the Syrian government’s fight against jihadists, who are everyone’s enemy. Instead of keeping government forces in southwest Syria in vain hopes of getting back Golan, they can move north and take on HTS. Or deploy east and take on any remaining pockets of ISIS.
Fifth, giving Israel’s takeover of Golan America’s stamp of approval helps the Kurds, our second-best ally (behind Israel) in the region. It reminds al-Assad that he can ill afford a two front war, against both the Syrian Democratic Forces (which include local Syrian Christians) and the Israelis. And finally, there are reports that massive oil deposits exist in Golan. Pro-Western, democratic Israel should have such wealth. Al-Assad would funnel at least some of it to Iran — the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism.
High Moral Principles, Selectively Applied
But, one might object, Israel took the Golan by military force. Shouldn’t it give it back, as the U.N. said all those years ago? Well, South Asian and North African history is in large part simply that of peoples taking territories from others. The entire Middle East west of Iran was once part of the Christian Byzantine Empire. Muslim Arabs took most of that. (Except for Constantinople, which the Muslim Ottoman Turks captured). For that matter, Iran itself was once Zoroastrian. It was conquered by those same Arabs.
The Israelites, the ancestors of the modern Israelis, saw their kingdoms overrun by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, but then also Muslim Arabs and Turks. In modern times, the Middle East has seen a number of such changes, too. Turkey annexed the Hatay State (not just an Indiana Jones movie fiction!) in 1939. Morocco occupied Western Sahara in 1976 and has hung on to it ever since. A bit farther afield, India seized Kashmir in 1947 and still has it. One-third of Cyprus is ruled by Turkey, following the latter’s 1974 military invasion. And so it goes. Muslim states in general, and Turkey in particular, have little moral authority to criticize Israel for such moves. Keep that in mind when Erdoğan weighs in, attacking Trump and Netanyahu.
The Establishment is already attacking Trump’s idea of formally recognizing Israeli control of the Golan Heights. That’s a clear indication that the President is on the right track. Yes, he’s trolling the foreign policy mavens — but with a deft diplomatic and geopolitical move that bolsters Israel’s security, undermines Iran’s Syria plans and helps the Kurds. So much winning!