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When President Donald Trump at 12:50 on a Thursday afternoon tweeted it was “time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” the average world citizen said a collective “huh?” Israel captured two-thirds of the strategic plateau from Syria in 1967 during the Six-Day War—and no one has seriously contested its control in more than 50 years.
The Golan was an afterthought until Day 5 of that war when Israeli Defense Forces, surmising their northern flank needed protection from Syria’s Soviet-backed forces, suddenly opened a front no one expected Israel to secure. Syria’s minister of defense, the father of current President Bashar al-Assad, gave his troops an order no Israeli has likely forgotten: “Strike the enemy’s settlements, turn them into dust, pave the Arab roads with the skulls of the Jews.”
Unlike then-foes Egypt and Jordan, Syria has never made peace with Israel. The United Nations considers the Golan Heights “occupied” territory, but for Israel it’s a strategic buffer between sworn enemies. The barrier is made more necessary now eight years into a war inside Syria that Assad also has refused to end through a negotiated peace process.
The last time I visited the Golan Heights, in 2017, Israel by all appearances had beaten its swords into plowshares. Groves of mangoes and avocados compete with orchards of apples and pears. Hothouses vie for hillsides with vineyards making some of Israel’s best wines. All of it supplements agricultural exports—for Europeans and Middle East neighbors who make it ritual to condemn Israel’s occupation of the Golan.
Playing politics with contested territory may help with voters, but drawing new attention to what’s been a largely unmolested border carries risk.
For two years Israel also ran a humanitarian aid operation across the Golan border into Syria—sending tons of food aid and providing medical care (using two U.S.-based Christian aid groups, Frontier Alliance International and Friend Ships Unlimited) to thousands of Syrian civilians the Assad regime was ignoring.
So why draw attention to something that’s not broken? Why put on the map again a place so lately off the radar? First, it’s an election year in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his 10th year in office, faces a historic reelection bid on April 9 amid corruption charges and a tough challenger.
Benjamin Gantz, a three-star general whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, was running ahead of Netanyahu in February polls (though the prime minister’s Likud Party remains favored to pick up enough seats to retain its majority in the parliamentary system). Securing Trump’s endorsement of stepped-up control over the Golan could secure votes. Netanyahu lobbied first National Security Adviser John Bolton, then Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his Middle East trip in March.
During a March 18 phone briefing with Pompeo and about a half-dozen reporters I attended, Pompeo was vague in response to questions about the Golan Heights. “I’m not going to foreshadow the remarks that I’ll make while I’m there,” he said. Asked about the State Department’s human rights report released a week before, which for the first time dropped the word “occupied” in reference to the Golan, Pompeo said the report “reflects the facts” but “is not a policy document.”
The Trump administration may be playing local politics, too. Israel more firmly in control of Syria’s southern border takes attention away from Turkey’s problematic control at Syria’s northern border. Both may pave a way to end U.S. troop involvement.
Playing politics with contested territory may help with voters, but drawing new attention to what’s been a largely unmolested border carries risk. Syria has deepening backing from Iran, with its militias nearby, and from Russia, which has installed in recent months a new anti-aircraft missile system there. These are the major threats, not a half-century-old border dispute.
The “radicalization of Syrian politics and the frailty of the Syrian state” played a major role in the crisis feeding the Six-Day War, argued former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich. That same frailty, he said, has fed the current war in Syria. Trumpeting Israeli control of one border in that war may improve security, or hasten another scene of conflict.