The Golan Heights, bordering Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, dominate the Jordan Rift Valley which contains the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. The Heights were allocated by the British and French governments to the French Mandate of Syria in the 1920s and were transferred as part of the newly independent state of Syria in 1946. When the administrative line between the British and French Mandates was drawn in 1923 no consideration was given to defense against aggression from either territory.
The picture has of course changed immeasurably since then. Vulnerability of Israel to occupation of the Heights by hostile forces is proven by recent history and re-affirmed by events from the start of the civil war in Syria until today. This vulnerability remains even with the advent of modern warfighting technology.
As part of the Arab League, Syrian forces launched an invasion of northern Israel across the Golan Heights in June 1948. After the 1949 armistice, there were years of sporadic attacks against Israel from the Golan Heights, including cross-border raids by Fatah and shelling of civilian communities by the Syrian Army. Syria intensified its
In 1981 Israel effectively annexed the area of the Heights under its control, a move that was condemned by the international community. The international community still does not recognize Israel's possession of the Golan Heights as legitimate and frequent calls have been made, including by the UN, to restore the territory to Syria.
It is a commonly held view that Israel's possession of the Golan Heights is illegal under international law. But this position is not tenable. It is illegal to hold onto territory acquired through wars of aggression, but Israel gained the Golan Heights during its defense against aggression launched from the Golan. Under the UN Charter defensive war is not illegal and throughout history countries have retained territory gained in their own defense.
Recognition by the international community would not encourage wars of aggression but, on the contrary, would deter them. Returning the Golan Heights to Syria would not only endanger Israel and against their will consign the 25,000 Druze living there to the depredations of President Assad; but it would also send the message that an aggressor has nothing to lose as there is no territorial price to pay for its violent actions.
Western support for Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights would equally extract a price from Assad — albeit a comparatively small one — for the war he has waged against his own people in which millions have suffered and perhaps half a million died. In this, the West has plenty of words but few tools at its disposal. Rejecting Assad's claim on the Golan Heights is one of them, especially as he now seems set to retain virtually all of the status quo ante even after the monstrous war crimes he has committed.
But such a move by the West would be much more than just a rap on the knuckles, it would also be an expression of the new reality. In the past Israel offered Syria the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, with all approaches rejected. Many Western experts and governments naively viewed Assad as a potential partner for peace with Israel. The events of the last seven years have proven beyond all doubt that he is nothing other than a murderous despot who must not be given any opportunity for further aggression.
This is really the crux of the issue: Western action now could make a concrete contribution to preventing conflict in the future.
Syria is now and will remain for the foreseeable future under the domination of Iran. Through both actions and words, we know the Iranian ayatollahs are intent on aggression against the Jewish State. They are establishing a land corridor from Iranian territory through Iraq and Syria to Israel's border and plan to link their forces in that area with Hezbollah's strong offensive forces, including 100,000 rockets, in southern Lebanon. They have positioned their own forces and their proxies where they can threaten Israel and are intent on building these up and maintaining them in position for the long-term.
The Syrian government, as the civil war dies down and when it reconstitutes its forces with Russian assistance, will itself threaten Israel at Iran's behest; and Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy militias will also continue to do so. If these — or any other — malignant entities gain possession of the Golan Heights the threats of cross-border indirect fire could well escalate, leading to the deaths of Israeli civilians and forcing Israel into an overwhelming response that would cause significant bloodshed. This would potentially draw southern Lebanon into a conflict that could easily explode into a regional war.
Israel's possession of the Heights on the other hand is never likely to translate into offensive action against anyone. Israel has only ever fought on the defensive and its government sees neither Syria nor Iran as targets for aggression.
Iran, Syria and other entities proclaim Israel's occupation of the Golan as an excuse for conflict. Iran and its clients in the region including Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, count on a weak Western response to their aggression, with appeasement and judgments of moral equivalence serving repeatedly to encourage their violence. The other side of the coin is that unequivocal rejection by the West of this excuse would reduce the prospects of conflict.
We understand President Trump is now considering some form of recognition of Israel's legitimate and necessary possession of the Golan. We strongly support this proposal and encourage all other Western nations that are genuinely interested in the cause of peace to do the same.
Rafael Bardaji was National Security Adviser to the President of Spain.
Richard Kemp was Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan.