On the 21st March, U.S. President Donald Trump declared in a tweet that he was prepared to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights territory. The Golan is a patch of territory in southwestern Syria which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. The plateau gives the area a particular strategic significance to both countries, who have yet to sign a peace deal with each other.
As reported by the Council for Foreign Relations, the Golan-based human rights group Al-Marsad said in a statement following Trump’s announcement that, “Syrians in the occupied Golan face calculated Israeli efforts to restrict their building and land use, destroy their enterprises, cleanse their Arab culture, manipulate their Syrian identity, and suffocate their freedom of movement.”
Comments reported in Al Jazeera say that “This unilateral action does nothing to assist in finding a long-term peaceful solution to the conflict in the Middle East,” South Africa’s UN Ambassador Jerry Matjila said.
Trump’s decision to make the announcement likely has much more to do with the upcoming Israeli election than any serious musings on the Golan issue. Benjamin Netanyahu will present the move as a victory for his presidency, hoping this translates into a boost for him in the polls. Mired by a myriad of corruption scandals, Netanyahu’s re-election campaign has been all but plain sailing. He does remain, however, a key ally in the Trump Doctrine to contain Iran in the Middle East and so his victory is important for some.
Israel occupied the Golan in the 1967 Israel–Palestinian war, and defended and held the region in 1973 after an attempt to reclaim it by Syria. In 1981, the Knesset in Israel passed a law which recognized its sovereignty over the region. This move was widely denounced, with the UN Security Council passing Resolution 497 which declared the law illegal under international law. Therefore, under international law the recognition of the Golan is illegal. Israel’s occupation of the land can still be considered aggressive land grabbing with imperialist tendencies which should be returned to the Syrians. The population of the region is split 50:50 between Israeli settlers and Druze Arabs (Jawlanis). Israel continues to try to normalize the occupation by carrying out nominally democratic local elections, which the Jawlanis cannot take part in, because they refuse to take Israeli citizenship. Like many other Palestinians, they refuse to acknowledge the authority of the settler state.
An unintended consequence of the announcement is how Syrian President Bashar al Assad will be able to frame the development in his political rhetoric. Assad and his allies, Hizbullah and Iran will likely use the announcement to claim legitimacy against defenders against western hegemony. Whilst there is arguably some truth to this, Assad is one of the most brutal dictators and mass murderers of this century and should not be given the opportunity to deflect attention away from his track record and claim any humanistic role as defender against aggression. The same goes for his allies Hizbullah and Iran, both of which are deeply corrupt organizations and multiple human rights abuses. Furthermore, the move will be used by other oppressive regimes to justify annexations, such as Putin’s occupation of Crimea. At a time when those who oppose such oppression need all support they can get, they must be able to look to the responsible United States who does not indulge in such colonial ambitions. Such a tone was set by former President Obama three years ago when his administration supported a statement by the Security Council denouncing attempts by Netanyahu to annex the Golan.
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