This week's question | 2006-05-31

39 years after Israel's invasion of June 5, 1967, can the Golan Heights return to the heart of Syria's foreign policy?

In June 2007, it will have been forty years since Israel invaded the Golan Heights, and over a quarter of a century since it blatantly annexed the Syrian territory, in complete disdain of global condemnation and of United Nations Security Council resolutions (such as 242, 338 and 497) which have repeatedly declared Israel's actions illegal.

Sadly, it is necessary today to remind the world ? including the Syrian people ? of this fact, as in the last six years, somehow, the issue of the Golan Heights has been wiped off the international agenda, being overtaken by Syria's interference in Lebanon (now itself dubbed an occupation by mainstream media) and ridiculous questions of Syrian "seriousness" about peace.

The Golan Heights played a starring role during the 1990s, when the equation of "land for peace" was first presented by then-president George H. Bush in his address to Congress of March 1991, following a significant Syrian participation to the liberation of Kuwait. Indeed, Hafez Assad had understood the stakes and had acted accordingly, which enabled him to witness a tremendous change in the American approach towards Syrian affairs. Then, there was no question whatsoever that the onus was on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights; the only question was how much leeway either side would accept on the Lake Tiberias shoreline. The so-called Rabin Declaration, which had confirmed Israel's withdrawal intentions to the Clinton administration, had ensured the endurance of the Syrian-Israeli negotiations, which were to eventually falter when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak cowardly withdrew his government's commitment during the Wye River summit of 2000, much to the stupefaction of Syria.

Months later, the situation changed drastically in Syria, Israel and the US, with new administrations (which mainly did not inherit their predecessors' diplomatic flair or experience) unwilling (in the case of the US and Israel) or unable (in the case of Syria) to push for a breakthrough. While no one in Damascus was watching, Ariel Sharon (in his position as George W. Bush's "man of peace," no less) was able to repeatedly negate Syrian claims to the Golan and to arrogantly announce the expansion of Israeli settlements there. Sharon was also able to hit Syria directly for the first time in years ? in Lebanon in 2001, and more importantly in Syria itself, mere miles from Damascus, in 2003. All the Syrian regime could do was "reserve the right to retaliate" and try (but fail) to get a Security Council resolution to denounce the Israeli aggression.

How things had changed - from having Washington as a sponsor of the Syrian-Israeli peace track, to having Washington as a sponsor of the Syria Accountability Act!

In response to Israel's renewed intransigence, and to America's unjustified indifference to the issue of the Golan and its shameless selectiveness in applying international law, Syria's brilliant new strategy was to offer the resumption of peace talks ? unconditionally! The tougher Israel acted, the more desperately Syria responded, amateurishly and inexplicably erasing ten years of hard work and of clear advances (or what Israel loves to call "painful concessions") by accepting the unacceptable ever more publicly.

The regime even managed to get Israeli media quite excited about its surrender of claims to Alexandretta, as journalists wondered whether the agreement with Turkey could be a precursor to one on the Golan, and whether they would be able to calmly drink its wine and ski on its slopes for eternity under an Israeli flag. They might have been forgiven for thinking that, had it not been for some Israeli officers' taboo-breaking declarations that security was a non-issue for retaining the Golan, given Israel's immense military and technological superiority. But Syria did not even manage to exploit that.

Given Syria's current relative weakness (especially since its humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon), any Israeli government ? be it a so-called "dove" or a "hawk" ? should logically be eager to push for an agreement when its enemy is down and has indicated it was willing to start over from scratch, no questions asked. Clearly, Israel's snubs in these conditions indicate it will continue to self-assuredly claim that the Golan will always be Israeli, and that Israeli leaders are not willing to shake hands ? at least not on a peace agreement.

Israel has no leg to stand on, obviously, but it has managed to flout international law and renege on its commitments (amazingly calling for Syria's adherence to binding Security Council resolutions from its own glass house), while Syria was transformed from a partner in peace to a pariah in a few short years. Surely the Syrian regime has seen this coming and could have reacted appropriately, or was that beyond its capacity? More and more, Syrians are beginning, reluctantly perhaps, to pine for the "good old days" of Syrian foreign policy, for the momentum which started in Madrid, and for the celebrated years when powerful countries vouched for Syria's rights and nudged Israel to comply with the consensus. Today, with their silence, these old friends seem to be agreeing to Israel's agenda.

Syrians who partly justify their patience with the regime's excesses by saying "at least they're steadfast on the issue of the Golan" are completely wrong, of course. The only steadfastness of the current regime lies in its persistence, ad nauseam, to preach what Syrians call "selling patriotisms" and to liberally distribute treason accusations to any critic. Somewhat like Quneitra's freezing in time after its savage and systematic destruction, the entire Golan Heights are slowly becoming a mere showcase for the Syrian regime when it needs to push for popular sacrifices and support.

Perhaps what is needed is something that Syria's current leaders and diplomats are not qualified to achieve, but at least should be attempting. Calling on the United Nations to push for all countries' compliance with international law would be a logical start. Re-establishing credentials with the European powers which once supported Syria's rightful demands is another prerequisite. Engaging mainstream media with a coherent, reasonable discourse - void of empty slogans and lip service to the leadership - is another necessity. And last but certainly not least, lobbying the powers that be in the halls of Capitol Hill, the meeting rooms of lobbyists and the lecture halls of Washington ? given the current administration's refusal to conduct an official dialogue ? is the very least the Syrian regime can do as it hopes ? in vain ? that the next administration will be more friendly.

Instead, the Syrian regime has chosen to do nothing and the Golan is less and less of an issue. Soon, future generations of Syrians will be asking: "The Golan Heights? What about them?"