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How Seriously Should Israel Take Syria’s Golan Heights Threat?
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem addresses the 73rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on September 28, 2018. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

How Seriously Should Israel Take Syria’s Golan Heights Threat?

Experts say Syrian regime feeling more confident; Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem pledged that Syria will retake Golan Heights from Israel

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem addressed the UN General Assembly on Saturday with a focus on what the regime intends to do about the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. He declared that Damascus aims to recapture the territory from Israel after Syrian regime forces have retaken areas opposite the Israeli border during a recent Russian-backed offensive.

In recent months, the regime has recaptured most of the country after a bloody seven-year war that pitted pro-regime forces, including the regime’s army, Russia, and Iran-backed groups like Hizbullah, against anti-regime Sunni rebel fighters. The conflict has left more than 350,000 people dead—although estimates vary widely; the number could be closer to 500,000—and displaced millions.

Aside from declaring Syria victorious in the war and praising the “defiance” of the Syrian people and army, the foreign minister also accused Israel of assisting “terrorist organizations” fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. One common tactic of the regime is to refer to Israeli airstrikes in Syria or Jerusalem’s support of rebel fighters as acts of “terrorism.” It reserves the same rhetoric for rebel groups, lumping them together with Islamic State or al-Qaida fighters who sided with the rebels during the war.

Israel has “protected them [terrorists] through direct military intervention and launching repeated attacks on Syria, Muallem declared. “Just as we liberated southern Syria from terrorists, we are determined to liberate fully the occupied Syrian Golan to the lines of June 4, 1967,” he added.

Turning to other issues, the minister said that “conditions are now present for the voluntary return of refugees… We have called upon the international community and humanitarian organizations to facilitate these returns.”

The Israeli-controlled Golan Heights were part of Syria until Israel captured them in the 1967 War. In the decades since, over 20,000 Israelis have moved into the area, which is also home to roughly 20,000 Druze Muslims. In 1981, the Israeli government under former prime minister Menachem Begin annexed the territory despite heavy criticism from the international community, which still does not recognize Israel’s claim to the land.

The area, comprising a plateau straddling Israel and Syria, is deemed vitally important from a strategic point of view for its elevated location overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Hula Valley. The heights provide Israel with a key vantage point for monitoring developments in Syria, and the terrain acts as a natural buffer against any military incursion into Israel from Syria.

At times, Israeli governments have pondered returning the heights to Syria in exchange for peace and recognition. But with Iran’s strong influence over Assad regime, many analysts believe that Israel is more determined than ever to keep a firm grasp on the Golan.

But does Israel now have a more determined enemy? And how seriously should Jerusalem take Muallem’s words?

“The Syrian regime currently feels a lot more confident now than at any time in the last seven years,” Dr. Jonathan Spyer, Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA), told The Media Line. “The danger to it has now passed and there’s no realistic chance of the regime falling any time soon. The natural and next order of business is to seek the expulsion of those foreign forces that they don’t like from Syria, and the so-called ‘liberation’ or conquest of the Golan Heights is part of that.”

During his speech, Muallem demanded that foreign forces deployed in Syria must leave. The U.S. currently has some 2,000 troops stationed in the country; their role is to train and advise Kurdish and Sunni forces opposed to the regime. France also maintains some 1,000 troops there to assist anti-regime forces, while Turkey frequently intervenes from across the border.

“There is an irony to this, because the only real reason the Syrian regime has survived is because of the presence of foreign forces on Syrian soil that wanted to help it, namely Russia and Iran,” Spyer said.

“The Syrian regime is no closer to retaking the Golan Heights than it has been since 1967,” he asserted. “Nothing has changed, except for the mood of the regime. Assad hardly has an army.”

He explained that the possible presence now or in the future of Iranian-linked forces may have the intention of turning the border with the Golan into a situation reminiscent of southern Lebanon, where Iranian-backed Hezbollah militias fought and continue to fight against Israel.

Other defense analysts argue that Israel should take the Syrian foreign minister’s statements seriously.

“[Muallem’s remarks] show that whatever the prevailing conditions are, Israel should always assume that the Arab world will come back and demand territory back from it,” Dr. Martin Sherman, the Executive Director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line. “The Syrian regime will try to make the Golan a rallying point for support in the Muslim world.”

Like Spyer, Sherman said that the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian proxies along the border with Israel in Syria could lead to simmering tensions that would ultimately boil over into a war.

“I’m not sure that Syria by itself could retake the Golan, but they could certainly create a serious security threat along the border,” Sherman argued, adding that Russia too could get involved if such a conflict were to arise. “There are many possible scenarios and I’m not too optimistic.

“What Israel should do now is embark on a vigorous international diplomatic initiative to have the world recognize its sovereignty over the Golan,” he said, noting that the Israelis could pursue such an endeavor by lobbying U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Israel’s security situation is very different if it has the Golan and if it doesn’t, especially the eastern fringes which basically control the approaches to Damascus,” Dr. Sherman said. “It’s essential that Israel clarify its position on the matter.”

Terrance J. Mintner contributed to this report.

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