Whither the Golan Heights?

The plateau called the Golan Heights is Israel’s northern most region, bordering Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Its area, 440 square miles, is slightly smaller than New York City. The West insists the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights is “occupied territory” which must be returned to Syria. This demand needs clarification.

If Israel retreated from the Golan Heights, who would rule there, the mass murderer Bashar Assad (Alewite), Hezbollah and Iran (Shia), al Nusra Front (Sunni), ISIS (Sunni)? None of the above would serve Western interests, yet the pressure on Israel to withdraw persists. A better solution is for Israel to control all of the contested plateau, rather than have sectarian Islamist groups fighting over it.

History shows that Jews prospered on the Golan Heights in antiquity, from at least the 9th century BCE until the Arab Conquest in the 7th century CE. From 1517 until 1917, the Ottoman Empire ruled the entire region, including the Golan Heights and Palestine. These areas were part of the province of Syria, called Greater Syria by the Arabs, which included present day Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Jews returned to settle on the Golan Heights in the late 19th century, but were forced out by the Arabs in 1947, just before the War of Independence. (

The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement , in which France and Britain schemed to share the Middle East after the defeat of Turkey, first included the Golan Heights in Palestine, to be under the British Mandate. But before the British Mandate for Palestine and the French Mandate for Syria & Lebanon were adopted by the League of Nations in 1922, France exchanged part of the northern Jordan Valley with Britain, receiving the Golan Heights in return. Syria became independent in 1945.

In 1967, following years of constant Syrian attacks from the Golan Heights onto the Galilee lowlands below, Israel defeated the Syrians in the Six Day War and settled the sparsely populated area. Mt. Hermon, the highest mountain in the area, was divided between Syria and Israel with parts of the Golan remaining under Syrian control. Thus Israel has ruled most of the Golan Heights for 48 years, while Syria ruled for only 22 years.

In more recent times Syria has become a highly contested area. Bashar Assad, the dictator of Syria who has presided over the deaths of nearly a half million Syrians by some counts, has lost control of the country, after Assad family rule since 1970. It’s impossible to say if Bashar Assad will remain as titular head of Syria, or even if Syria will remain united at this point. President Putin of Russia has a firm hold on the eastern portion of Syria, affording Russia a port and an airbase there. Iran is propping up Assad with its proxy army, Hezbullah, and units of the Iranian National Guard Corps (IRGC), which gives them a strong presence on the Golan Heights and elsewhere.

Russia and Iran are supporting Assad for their own reasons, allowing him to retain limited power. The Kurds have carved out a northern region for themselves while the majority Sunni Arabs also control territory, divided between anti-Assad rebels and ISIS supporters. Al Nusra, a supporter of ISIS, is also on the Golan Heights. In short, Syria is a mess which will probably never return to its 1945 borders.

Where does this leave Israel? Iran will probably overcome al Nusra and establish a presence confronting both Jordan and Israel from its positions on the Golan Heights. Russia can play a pivotal role in this situation. Undoubtedly, Iran will provoke Israel from across its northern borders, but is this in Russia’s interest?

While it’s true that Russia is far from a superpower, it is challenging the US in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, punching far over its weight due to Western diffidence. This weakness has allowed Russia to become, once again, a big player in the region, turning the Mediterranean into a Russian lake. However, Putin is a practitioner of realpolitik and is not an enemy of Israel.

While the Obama administration has favored Iran over Israel and other allies in the Middle East, Putin has cooperated with Israel, mindful of its one million Russian citizens and its technological and economic prowess. To safeguard its recent gains in the region, Russia might be persuaded to back Israel if it were to take control of the entire Golan plateau. This would ensure a sort of detente, minimizing Iran’s ability to unsettle a region that Russia expects to benefit from.

Assad’s Syria had a tenuous claim to the Golan Heights, due to a long Jewish history there and the fact that Israel captured it in a defensive war. If Iran confronts Israel there, Russia will have problems. So will the West, which appears to be clueless in this regard. With Iranian control of the formerly Syrian territory, there will be constant trouble, but if Israel controls the Golan highlands, there will be quiet. It seems to me that Russia may realize and act on this, despite the West’s idiotic insistence that Israel give the Golan Heights to “Syria.”

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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