Golan Heights: The Pinnacle of Syrian Nation-Building
Golan Heights: The Pinnacle of Syrian Nation-Building
After years of bloody conflict, Syria's quest for peace is sure to be neither quick nor smooth. At some point, the government will have to begin rebuilding the country from the shambles that protracted civil war have left. But forging a bond between ruling officials and rebels will be a difficult task, and Syria's leaders will have to rely on any semblance of commonality among the country's disparate factions to pull them back together. Like so many post-conflict countries before it, Syria may turn to the tried-and-true method of uniting its people by galvanizing citizens around a popular national cause. For Damascus, the Golan Heights offers just such a rallying point.
In a country divided among numerous ethnic groups, religious sects and political ideologies, one belief unites Syrians: Damascus holds the rightful claim to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Many Syrians wince when recalling the 1967 loss of the "Joulan," and nearly every citizen has a friend or an uncle who fought in the battle for Quneitra, where the Syrian command lost on the last day of the Six-Day War. The defeat was humiliating. Then-President Hafez al Assad counted the forfeit of the Golan Heights among his biggest regrets. Even today, Syrian rebels record videos of themselves promising revenge. Although the country's Islamists are particularly infuriated by the fact that a Jewish state now owns what was once Muslim land, most Syrians agree that the territory inherently belongs to them. In fact, few other issues inspire such consensus in Syria.
The lingering bitterness is clearest in the city of Quneitra, which lies in the sliver of the Golan Heights that Syria still controls as a result of negotiations after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. All but destroyed after the Israelis withdrew, the city remains a ghost town to this day. As a reminder of what the country endured, the Syrian government has preserved the wreckage, a potent piece of propaganda against its neighbor to the southwest.
By comparison, the Israeli side of the Golan Heights looks quite different. The southern Golan is much flatter and more conducive to agriculture than the rocky north, and boasts high-end wineries, restaurants and nature preserves where tourists can ride horses, watch birds and pick seasonal fruits. Hikers can climb Mount Bental to see beautiful panoramic views of Syria, or sip a hot drink at a cafe called Coffee Anan (meaning "Coffee of the Clouds" in Hebrew, the name alludes both to the mountain's height and to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan). At first glance, you would never know the area had been the scene of a bloody tank battle. On closer inspection, however, you might see the remnants of trenches and bunkers used during the Yom Kippur War. And since the Syrian civil war broke out, Israel's militarization of the Golan Heights has increased.
A Strategic Outpost for Israel
For Israel, the Golan Heights serves a much greater purpose than offering attractive tourism opportunities: It is the key to Israeli security. The Golan Heights sits at the western edge of the Syrian plateau, which plunges thousands of feet into the Israeli plains that surround the Sea of Galilee. Whoever controls the area, which reaches 9,000 feet high at the peak of Mount Hermon, can see for miles in every direction. The Golan Heights thus gives Israel an important vantage from which it can monitor Syrian military movement. (After all, Syria fortified the western crest of the Golan Heights after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, using it to shoot into Israeli territory.)
The Golan also provides security of another kind. Water traveling through the region to the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River accounts for one-third of Israel's freshwater resources. Since more than half of the country's 1.78 billion cubic meters of annual renewable natural water originates outside its borders, the water-poor country cherishes what few water resources it has.
And much as the Golan Heights is a source of shame to Syrians, it is a matter of national pride for Israelis. When Egypt and Syria launched simultaneous attacks against Israel in 1973 in an effort to retake the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, Israel successfully countered both offensives. Many Israelis see the battle as a modern-day version of the story of the Jewish Maccabee army, which defeated a much larger and better-equipped Syrian force despite being vastly outnumbered. Though Syria reclaimed a small portion of the Golan Heights after the war ended, Israel kept the bulk of the area, where some 50,000 Israelis live today.
Still, pride is not the reason Israel will continue refusing to give up the Golan Heights for the foreseeable future; strategy is. While Israel left itself some room to negotiate in 1981 by enforcing its rule of law over the territory without formally annexing it, the Golan Heights fulfills too many strategic imperatives for Israel to cede it to an unfriendly government. Talks on the issue have occurred, but Syria and Israel have consistently failed to reach any concrete agreement, hindered by persistent sticking points such as the delineation of borders, satisfactory security arrangements for Israel and Syria's alliance with Iran.
More Talk Than True Threat
As many aspects of Syria's future remain unclear, one thing is relatively certain: No matter what government controls Damascus, it will not be able to meet Israel's stipulations for the return of the Golan Heights. Consequently, Syrian leaders will be able to frame the territory's reclamation only in the context of war. For Syria, whose military is grossly ill-equipped to take on the Israel Defense Forces, this is a problem. By the time Syria finally emerges from civil war, its economy, infrastructure and military supplies — not to mention personnel — will be but shadows of their former selves, leaving the country in no position to retake the Golan Heights by force. Leaders seeking to capitalize on the patriotism that the Golan Heights awakens in Syrians will therefore be limited to grand rhetoric. Anyoccasional attacks by supporting militant groups will be small enough in scope to avoid incurring retaliation from Israel.
And so, as Syrian peace talks pick up, frequent discussions about the Golan Heights should be expected, particularly as members of the country's government and opposition jockey for a place in the next administration. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already sought to head off some of this talk. During an extraordinary Cabinet session in the Golan Heights on April 17, he declared, "The Golan Heights will remain forever in Israel's hands." Unsurprisingly, his statement elicited immediate condemnation from both Syrian opposition leader Riad Hijab and Damascus' ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari. But regardless of how common proclamations to the contrary may become in the coming months as Syria embarks on an arduous rebuilding process, in reality there is little Syrian leaders can do to change the status quo in the Golan Heights.