Ankara’s mediation efforts yielded result on April 24 when Israel announced that it was ready to give up the stategic Golan Heights to Syria for peace, forty-one years after it occupied the area in 1967. It was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who passed the news to Syrian President on his visit to Damascus. Although this is not the first time, that rumors of concessions to Syria’s presidents abound in Israel, its seems that Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has focused on a deal with Damascus to bolster his flagging political stance, which is in constant decline since the 2006 Lebanon War.
But there is growing opposition to Olmert’s move, which is regarded largely as an opportunistic spin, rather than a serious strategic turnabout in the enigmatic relations with Syria. Even in Olmert’s own party there are cabinet ministers who already raised eyebrows. Prominent among these is former IDF chief of staff and defense minister Shaul Mofaz who openly warned, that giving Syria the Golan Heights will mean bringing Iran onto Israel’s most topographically sensitive borders. Syria being a very central and dominant component of the radical axis, any handover of the Golan Heights to them means deploying Iranian military elements, sooner or later, on the Golan Heights overlooking Israel’s vulnerable north. A combined Iranian backed threat, from Hezbollah along the Lebanon border and Iranian bolstered Syrian forces, could present a dangerous threat to engulf the entire Israeli north, with no effective defense line to its West.
Thus, the question is not whether Israel is willing to cede it’s hold on the strategic Golan Heights, but if it can afford to do so, without risking it’s national security – by actually inviting an irreconcilable foe, like a Syria-Iran military combination, to exploit it’s first opportunity to strike a mortal blow on Israel’s north.
Syrian president Bashar Assad cannot be trusted in any way. The young leader worships extremists – like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – encourages violent means, like brutal assassinations of his opponents in Lebanon and even in his own country. In contrast to his utterly shrewd and ruthless, but extremely politically wise father Hafez Assad, young Bashar asserts his power-base by irresponsible actions, which have already cost his nation most of it’s political and economic assets in Lebanon and, among the Sunni Muslim leaders who had counted Syria as one of their own. Now devoid of their support, Bashar has maneuvered his country as Iran’s subservient nation. To trust such a dubious and dangerous leader would spell sheer disaster to Israel’s security.
But the ultimate reasons for Israel’s not ceding the Golan Heights should be based on geo-stratgic facts: Above the Sea of Galilee rises an escarpment, its height ranging from 800 to 100 meters altitude known as the Golan Heights, towering over the Jordan rift valley to its west. It covers a total area of some 900 square kilometers. These heights are characterized by a ridge of volcanic hills that erupted few thousands years ago, creating a plateau made of layers of hard basalt rocks. This terrain makes cross-country movement difficult. Dominating the area is 2814 meter high Mount Hermon, creating a mountain providing excellent observation of the entire region, up to the Damascus Basin to the east, only some 60 kilometers away. To the west, it also dominates the entire Israeli Galilee, up the Haifa Bay on the Mediterranean.
The so-called “Purple Line” established after the ceasefire that followed the Six Day War, June 10th, 1967 provided an excellent line of defense for Israel, located mostly along the watershed and enabling long range observation posts from a line of volcanic hills, on which the IDF established strategic electronic surveillance stations. On the other hand, from pure strategic view, the same Golan Heights contribute almost nothing to the defense of Syria’s capital Damascus. A glimpse at the map indicates that due to topographical features to its west, Damascus can best be defended along the Awaj River near Sasa and the ‘Leja’, the volcanic stony deserts to the south, both impassable to military traffic. Any defense further west, including the Golan Heights can be outflanked, as the IDF did during the latter stages of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Furthermore, there is also another highly critical element to be considered – Israel’s vital water supply sources. Although the core issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict has always been the Palestine question, water has been a continuous matter of dispute that is intrinsically linked to it because half of Israel’s water demands are being met outside of its internationally recognized borders. Indeed, water has become a major factor in all past disputes, especially over the Golan Heights. Thus, any serious peace negotiations with Syria must eventually focus on Israel’s price tag over its irreplaceable water resources on the Golan Heights.
The geographical facts are stark and simple: The Golan water-shed is the source for more than 55 percent of Israel’s fresh water needs and forms part of the main aquifer-system that supplies Israel with most of their water supply. Together with the Jordan river headwaters originating near the disputed “Sheeba Farms” in south Lebanon, Wazzani springs, the Hasbani and Banyas, are all receiving their main sources from the area of Mt. Hermon. It should be stressed that most of the tributary streams flowing into the Jordan and Lake Tiberias originate on the Golan slopes. As past history conflicts over these water disputes demonstrated, only an Israeli presence in the basins of these streams can assure their continued flow to Lake Tiberias. In contrast to Israel’s irreplaceable water lifeline from the Golan Heights basin to the river Jordan below, Syria obtains approximately 85 percent of the renewable water supplies from two of the Middle-East’s largest rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates flowing through its east and center regions, while and the river Orontes irrigates large parts of northern Syria. Indeed, Syria has an ongoing dispute with Turkey over it’s northern water resources – which in the past nearly came on the brink of war.
Another major element in any future peace negotiations between Syria and Israel will be the dispute over the so-called “Line of 4 June 1967”, depicting the uncharted border that existed before the Six Day War. This issue has become part of the Arab-Israeli peace process lexicon, for years. It encapsulates the extent of the withdrawal demanded of Israel by Syria in the context of any peace treaty. Conceptually, the line of 4 June 1967 was the confrontation line, on the day before the outbreak of the 5 June 1967 war. Here again shortsighted geo-political constraints became a dangerous source of mortal conflict.
Only along one short 15-kilometer stretch did this dubious line correspond with the international boundary between Palestine and Syria instituted by Great Britain and France in 1923. Neither did it correspond to the mutually agreed UN brokered Armistice Demarcation Line agreed to by the parties in 1949, after the first Arab Israeli war. In fact, the root of the Arab-Israeli water issue can be traced back to 9 March 1916, when the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed between the British and the French
The Syria-Palestine boundary (later Israel) itself was a product of the post World War I Anglo-French partition of Ottoman Syria. It was intentionally demarcated so that all of Lake Tiberias, including a ridiculous “ten-meter wide” strip of beach along its northeastern shore, would stay inside Palestine. Under the terms of an armistice signed on 20 July 1949, Syrian forces were to withdraw east of the old Palestine-Syria boundary. Israeli forces were to refrain from entering the evacuated areas, which would become a demilitarized zone. However, following incessant armed clashes over these territorial ambiguities, Israel, feeling constantly threatened by the dominating Golan Heights over the Jordan Valley rift, started a creeping annexation of the disputed territory, which ended only with the occupation of the entire Golan Heights after 1967. Israeli claimed sovereignty over Demilitarized military zone (DMZ), on the basis that, “it was always part and parcel of the British Mandated Territory”. The conflict over the Golan waters culminated in 1964, when Syria decided, unilaterally, to tap two of the sources Jordan river sources, diverting the Hasbani and Banyas from their natural flow into Israel, leading their waters to a planned reservoir on the Yarmouk river, on their southern border with Jordan. Israel immediately retaliated sharply by armed force destroying the Syrian construction first by long-range precision tank fire and later, as the Syrians shifted their work further eastward, with massive air-strikes. A few years later the Six Day War broke out, capturing the Golan Heights in June 1967.
Even this strange distinctiveness is not the only anomaly in this highly sensitive region. Due to its geo-strategic topography, Israel’s northern border poses some serious challenge to its defensive posture. What is known as the “Galilee Panhandle”, an area which pokes like a finger from the Hula valley northward up to the Lebanese border, is a curious geographical phenomenon, created as result of hasty, shortsighted decisions made by the French and British planners, following their victory over the Ottoman empire after WW1. The facts of this political fiasco are apparent to even the most impartial observer. On its west, the Panhandle leans on a mountain range, only partially under Israeli sovereignty, the rest is Lebanon. (Over this very ground was fought last summer’s Second Lebanon War, with disastrous consequences, partly due to topographical constraints.) Merely five to seven kilometers in width along its northern part, the Panhandle is dominated on its east by the towering Golan Heights and Mt. Hermon, from which, Israeli villages were constantly bombarded by Syrian artillery located on the overlooking slopes.
Under the present circumstances prevailing in this region, should Israel deprive itself of its most important strategic asset for a mere piece of paper, signed by a single leader, would be a strategic mistake, having serious consequences to any future negative change in Middle Eastern affairs. In fact, Syria’s national interests are focused not only on the Golan Heights, which represent only an insignificant part of its entire territory. Syria’s long-term strategic aims are to exert its hegemony over Lebanon and Israel’s northern territory and even part of northern Jordan, which it considers part of their strategic aspirations over “Greater Syria” predominance.
One of the options being proposed by the Baker-Hamilton report is to place US forces to mentor a future Syria-Israel peace deal over the Golan Heights, following Israel’s withdrawal. Part of this would be US experts taking charge of the IDF monitoring stations on Mt. Hermon and the overlooking border hills. As real-time intelligence in modern warfare is regarded imperative in early warning relinquishing these highly strategic assets, even under a friendly monitored replacement could become a crucial matter of national security. For example, During Operation Desert Storm, US intelligence on Iraqi Scud launch zones in western Iraq, vital to Israel, was denied even when Saddam’s missiles impacted on Tel Aviv. But there are other reasons for Israel’s reluctance to place US forces on the Golan. The presence of US forces in harms way to guard Israel against hostile infiltrations and subsequent preventive counter-guerrilla operations by the IDF could lead to unnecessary tension between the two allied nations.
In conclusion, the Golan Heights represents a vital strategic asset for Israel’s security, especially in view of the current political developments in the region. The danger of the so-called Shi’ite Crescent engulfing Israel from its north and north-eastern border, with a Hezbollah dominated and Iranian-backed Lebanese Government, places Israel, should it cede the Golan Heights to Syria, before a strategic disaster: a potential confrontation on indefensible borders, with a Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah military alliance. Thus apart from being defensive in its nature, the Golan Heights not only safeguards Israel’s north, but deters, by the IDF long range reach into the Damascus basin, to deter any offensive options, which Bashar Assad may consider to regain the Heights by force even under an Iranian umbrella, will become a highly dangerous adventure.