Golan Heights: Trump Breaks a Taboo But Hardly Breaks The News

Since the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Syria’s Golan Heights have been illegally occupied by Israel whilst in 1981 Tel Aviv moved to formally annex the territory. Today, although internationally recognised as occupied territory of the Syrian Arab Republic’s Quneitra Governorate, the Golan Heights pragmatically functions as part of Israel, complete with a depleted Arab population and an ever growing number of Israeli settlers. Yesterday, Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce that Washington plans on formally recognising the occupied territory as part of Israel.

For Trump, the move was strategic for the following reasons:

–As younger members of the Democratic Party of the United States inch closer to Palestine, the Israel-Palestine question is becoming more of a right/left divide in US politics, whereas previously it had been a source of unanimous agreement among the two main parties. As such, Trump is seeking to court the pro-Israel vote at a time when some Democrats are getting cold feet when it comes to unflinching support for Tel Aviv.

–Israel is about to hold a general election and the Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has used his open friendship with Donald Trump as a major theme of his campaign. In this sense, Trump’s statement on the Golan Heights was essentially a free gift to Netanyahu who can now tell his right wing base that his good relationship with the US President has pushed Washington to become even more pro-Israel than under previous administrations.

–As the US quietly (surprisingly quietly) announced the defeat of the Daesh terror group as a paramilitary and pseudo-state entity, Trump wanted to send Damascus a message that just because America’s work in Syria is “technically” done, this does not mean that Washington plans to do any favours for the Assad government.

Overall, Trump’s decision was one that was politically motivated and one that may have some electoral consequences in both the US and Israel. Apart from that, it does not change the realities on the ground. The fact of the matter is that Syria alone is in no position to liberate its own territory militarily and even if a joint offensive by Syria and Iran could do so (after much bloodshed), Syria and Israel’s mutual ally Russia would simply not allow that to happen. In fact, it was Russia and Israel that worked to mutually withdraw foreign (aka Iranian and Hezbollah) personnel from the Purple Line which separates the occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syria.

In this sense, Trump’s announcement is 2019’s version of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem/Al-Quds. It is symbolic – it will make Israel happy – it will make the Arab world and wider Muslim world angry, but it will not change the realities on the ground for either side. This is true because just as was the case in respect of the US recognising Jerusalem/Al-Quds as the “Israeli capital”, Trump’s Golan move will not receive substantial support at the United Nations.

Ironically, the move was also an unintended gift to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who is in the midst of a local election campaign on behalf of his AK Party. Although Turkey does not have relations with the current Syrian government, Erdoğan nevertheless took the opportunity to criticise the US for its close relationship with Israel. Likewise, Iranian leaders got to make similar statements whilst the Syrian government and the Arab League found a new issue on which they agree, in spite of tense relations since Syria was kicked out of the pan-Arab group in 2011 (Syria will likely return this year).

The reality is that due to Israel’s advanced weapons and its alliance with both the United States and Russia, no regional power will dare to liberate the Golan Heights. This somewhat pathetic reality had been swept under the rug for decades but at least now countries as diverse as Syria, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are discussing the issue.

As such, although it seems counter-intuitive, supporters of Syria’s legal right to its own territory should thank Donald Trump for “making the issue of occupied Arab land relevant again”.