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Assad and Netanyahu at Theheight of Their Strength Following Trump’s Decision on the Golan?

Cross-analysis by Michel Duclos and Dominique Moïsi

INTERVIEW - 10 April 2019

Over a year after Jerusalem was recognized as the capital of Israel, Donald Trump recognized Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights on 21 March. Overlooking the Damascus road, this 1,800-square-kilometre plateau, whose occupation by Israel on 10 June 1967 ended the Six-Day War, is of considerable importance in several respects. What political and geostrategic implications does this unilateral recognition have for the actors in the region? What does it mean in terms of international law? Our two special advisers on geopolitics, Michel Duclos and Dominique Moïsi, answer our questions.

What are the political implications for Benyamin Netanyahu, a few weeks before the elections in Israel, of the American recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan?

DOMINIQUE MOÏSI

This is a major issue; the Golan Heights are of strategic importance to Israel. It is the place from where, during the Six-Day War, hundreds of Syrian tanks departed. This northern front was the most difficult part of the Six-Day War for Israel, and stopping the Syrian tanks was an achievement, unlike, for example, the destruction of the Egyptian air forces still on the ground. In fact, the Golan Heights are not negotiable for Israel, except in the case of a peace agreement coupled with demilitarization of the Heights and extreme surveillance.

When Donald Trump recognizes the Golan Heights as Israeli, he gives a sense of international legitimacy that is almost irreversible. But for the international community, following the United States is impossible because it would legitimize Russia’s actions in Crimea, or China’s on certain islands. At the same time, we must not be under any illusions: the Israelis are not going to return the Golan to Syria. Its geographic location, the fact that it is a high plateau at Israel’s northern border contribute to making it a different territorial challenge from that of the Sinai or Gaza. Unless under exceptional circumstances, there is therefore no possibility for Israel to return this territory. 

Its geographic location, the fact that it is a high plateau at Israel’s northern border contribute to making it a different territorial challenge from that of the Sinai or Gaza.

It is clear that this provocative statement, made less than two weeks before the Israeli elections, can only be viewed as a gift from Donald Trump to Benyamin Netanyahu. Along with the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the recognition of the Golan Heights as an imposed basis for negotiation before hypothetical peace discussion with the Palestinians on the one hand, and with Syria on the other. Trump has been talking about a global resolution for some time, and he wants to be in a position of strength on all levels, with some kind of Soviet approach: "What's mine is mine, what's yours is negotiable".

Beyond the present to Benyamin Netanyahu, this statement must be contextualised within the American policy agenda in the Middle East and particularly in Syria. It comes as an answer that must be found to the fact that Iran and Russia are maintaining Assad in power - that being seen as a failure for the United States and their European allies. Russia now cultivates close ties with Israel, which has become a more and more Russian country. Indeed, from 1988 to 1998, over a million Russians arrived in Israel, and the population of Russian origin now constitutes nearly 20% of the country. There is a privileged, even trilateral, relationship between Netanyahu and Trump and between Netanyahu and Putin: they are authoritarian, have the same language, the same political culture, and are the bearers of an illiberal democracy model. In the same vein, Israel also has privileged relations with Narendra Modi in India and Xi Jinping in China. Israel has therefore managed to emerge from its diplomatic isolation, but has done it, some would say, in the wrong way, since the world has evolved in a way that favours respect for force above all.

While Israel and Iran are sworn enemies, none of them really want a war. Israel is aware of the difficulty of destroying Iran's nuclear arsenal, and the Iranians, whose regime is weakened by its isolation, are aware that Israeli military superiority remains. 

Trump therefore wants to show that he still exists in the Middle East, since he can influence the Israeli elections. The idea is also that for Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, the best enemy is Donald Trump’s best ally, namely Benyamin Netanyahu.

How does the resurgence of this question impact the Syrian conflict and Bashar al-Assad's position on the domestic and international scenes? 

MICHEL DUCLOS

The recognition of Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights reinforces the argument of the "axis of resistance" (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas). It constitutes such a flagrant denial of law that it can only exacerbate hostility towards Israel and American policy in the region, from Arabs and a fortiori Syrians. It is therefore a gift mainly to Iran and thus, subject to one aspect to which I will return in a moment, to Bashar al-Assad. All the more so since the State Department's statement invokes the Iranian threat to the Golan as a justification for President Trump's decision: this can only strengthen the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic as a leader in defending the rights of Arabs.

As was the case when the American Embassy was transferred to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan will be a setback in the movement that was observed - and which remains part of Trump's plan for the Middle East - to bring the Gulf States closer to Israel.

One last aspect has been overlooked. The Syrians historically blame the Assad dynasty for "losing the Golan Heights" and for being unable to recover them either by arms or by negotiation. Trump's decision enhances the Assad family’s responsibility in the "dismemberment" of the country in the Syrian public's mind - at a time when one third of the country is still in the hands of the Turks in the North, the Kurdish-Arab coalition in the North-West or the terrorist group that controls Idlib province. It is thus to be feared that the regime, in order to demonstrate its "patriotism", will be strengthened in its intention to reconquer Idlib as quickly as possible by force.

the recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan will be a setback in the movement that was observed - and which remains part of Trump's plan for the Middle East - to bring the Gulf States closer to Israel.

Does this American recognition constitute a breach of international law? What may be the impact on other cases of territorial conflict?

DOMINIQUE MOÏSI

It is a breach of international law in the sense that the United States unilaterally settles an unresolved issue. Can the United States substitute itself for the UN and decide alone that the Golan Heights should go to Israel? The answer is no, but there is law and reality. Who will get the Golan Heights back? No one. What will historians say at first? That Assad saved his regime and lost the Golan Heights. And he does not have the means to get it back.

From the end of the Cold War to the early 2000s, people dreamed of a world where law and strength went hand in hand. Until the late 1990s, the United States were seen as the world's policemen in the name of universal values. Since then, we have entered a world that is getting closer and closer to the law of the strongest, where force prevails over law with a new brutality.
 

MICHEL DUCLOS

All commentators have stressed that the recognition of Israel's annexation of the Golan sets a terrible precedent. Such a precedent may encourage the Israeli right-wing to annex the West Bank as well and, above all, will be interpreted by Moscow as a harbinger of a legitimization of the annexation of Crimea and by Beijing as a precursor of a weaker American attitude regarding its aims in the South China Sea.

Hence a major dilemma for Europeans and all countries committed to international law: the American decision calls for the widest possible condemnation, but what would be the value of a common position with Russia and China, when both do not consider themselves bound by international law? And if Europeans are satisfied with an exclusively European position - assuming they agree - wouldn’t it highlight their relative isolation? Isn't such a position intended to remain platonic?

There is however one path to explore: the text of the State Department's statement explains Donald Trump's decision in the context of the threatening presence of Iran and Hezbollah on Syrian territory in the Golan Heights. While condemning Trump's decision so that there is no ambiguity, perhaps it would be appropriate to minimize its scope. The message could be: "Europeans do not recognize the annexation of the Golan and it is not certain, given the circumstantial nature of Trump's position, which is obviously linked to Israeli domestic political considerations, that the White House's position will still be valid under his successor".

 

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