American President Donald Trump handed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a significant victory when he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocated the US Embassy there. Now, Israeli lobby groups in the US are trying to get Republican lawmakers to recognize Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights. Such an act would mark the first validation of forcefully acquired land since 1945, and it would have a dramatic impact on the interpretation of international law.
Located on the southwestern edge of the Aleppo plateau, the Golan Heights borders the Syrian desert to the east, the Yarmouk River to the south, Mount Hermon to the north, and the Sea of Galilee to the west. Furthermore, water traveling through the Golan heights into the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River account for a third of Israel’s freshwater resources. Thus, whoever controls the Golan Heights (overlooking missile/radar networks and water resources), will have the ability to monitor and shape the behavior of regional players. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israeli troops captured most of the Golan Heights from the Syrians. Then, on 14 December, 1981, Israel de facto enforced the Golan Heights Law over the territory without physically annexing it. This move was later condemned in U.N Security Council Resolution 497.
Syria still retains control over a small portion of the Golan Heights, but the Israeli and Syrian controlled territories differ greatly in geology. On the Israeli side, the soil is fertile and moist making it suitable for agriculture. On the Syrian side, the land is rocky and dry with signs of life coming from local ghost towns. As broke and divided Syria is, the Golan Heights serves as a rallying point to forge a bond between the government and rebel forces with the belief that Damascus holds the rightful claim to the area. This is shared throughout Syria. If Assad could somehow gain control over the Golan Heights, he would then inspire unity and consensus throughout the country. Yet, Syria is in no condition to retake the Golan Heights by force. In fact, the Syrian military cannot even exercise control over its own country let alone pick a fight with Israel. This means that when Syria finally emerges from the long, devastating war, its policymakers may seek to exploit nationalist attitudes the Golan Heights invokes in Syrians. Yet, due to their military restrictions, the Syrians will have to limit their selves to political rhetoric.
What further complicates the geopolitical arena in the Levant is the entry of Iranian militias in Syria. According to some estimates, there are around 15,000 Iranian soldiers in Syria along with 24,000 regional militiamen, as well as around 25,000 Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon that are altering the geopolitical equation in their favor. Currently, Iranian forces are seeking to establish military outposts near the Golan Heights. So far, the Israelis have thwarted such efforts and both sides have targeted each other with drones and missiles. For Israel, Iran’s presence in the Levant is a signal that the Golan Heights will act as a staging ground for a possible wider conflict in the future.
Last year, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked President Trump to recognize Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights after Former President Obama refused to do so in 2015. Considering that Israel has not entirely annexed the territory in question, it is somewhat peculiar that American lawmakers are considering the request. Moreover, despite the Iranian presence, the US recognition of Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights will have no immediate impact on the ground.
Nevertheless, a US recognition of the Golan Heights would be met with strong international opposition outside the United States and Israel even though no one would be able to stop it. For instance, the Palestinian Authority could take the case to the United Nations international tribunal at The Hague. Moreover, as a member of the UN Security Council, Washington could veto a resolution pertaining to the Golan Heights because it does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Therefore, the Palestinians and Syrians are powerless to resist pressure from Washington. Furthermore, the American decision to recognize the Israeli claim would set a legal precedent for Israel to do the same in the West Bank. This is important to understand since Israeli right-wing policymakers have expressed the need to abandon the two-state solution, annex the territory, and allow the Palestinians to function with limited sovereignty.
With the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Trump Administration conceded political leverage to Israel without getting anything in return. The act also grappled the negotiations on a two-state solution. An American recognition of Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights would continue this trend without having a real impact on the ground. However, at some point, the next American administration would have nothing to negotiate with their Israeli counterparts. Thus, these concessions under the Trump Administration have served to reduce Washington’s leverage over Israel. Meanwhile, for the Israelis, this is welcoming news especially given the turmoil in Syria and the encroachment of Iran. Nonetheless, it is unknown what President Trump will do because the long-term consequences of the recognition of the Golan Heights will not fall on the state of Israel, but on the United States.