US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a Golan Heights proclamation outside the West Wing after a meeting in the White House on March 25. Photo: AFP /Brendan Smialowski

For the first time in eight years, Syrians in both camps of the battlefield were united on one issue – their legal ownership of the Golan Heights.

The hilly expanse of 1,200 square kilometers has been occupied by Israel since 1967 and a commitment to its restoration is something that unites Islamists and secularists alike.

Statements from the Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus and the Riyadh-backed opposition Higher Negotiations Committee sounded very similar, both stressing the Golan’s Syrian identity while rejecting US President Donald Trump’s declaration of Israeli sovereignty over the plateau.

The announcement was met with a similarly hostile reaction by Syrian residents of the Golan, who now make up half its 40,000 residents, the rest being Israeli settlers. Even pro-American figures in the Syrian opposition did not defend the US leader’s decision, saying it empowered hardliners at the expense of moderates, benefiting Iran and Hezbollah.

The consensus seemed to end there, however. Neither camp in the Syrian conflict was able to suggest how they planned to confront this new reality, which Trump put into writing on Monday.

Syrian officialdom registered a stormy complaint through the United Nations, while editorials in state-run dailies highlighted the “Arab Syrian identity” of the Golan. A few imaginative journalists even went so far as to predict an imminent declaration of war against Israel, by Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.

Occupied by war

In pre-war Syria, such a declaration would have been met with massive demonstrations on the streets of Syria, always staged by the ruling Baath Party. The Baathists loved this populist form of expression, judging it reflected strength and consensus, while always providing for an excellent photo-shoot.

The year 2019 is another story.

The lack of any state-sanctioned demonstration was in large part due to security concerns, but also due to crippling economic difficulties that made it hard to rally people around major issues that once united them.

When Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem in December 2017, Damascus did not see any angry demonstrations. Nor did Cairo or Baghdad. Even Palestinian groups long based in Damascus were relatively mild about the matter.

“I would have loved to demonstrate in favor of Jerusalem or the Golan,” said Mustapha, a Syrian-Palestinian cab driver in central Damascus told Asia Times. “But I am too busy waiting in line to get my monthly share of cooking gas. If I leave the queue, I have to wait for an entire week.”

Nobody in their right mind expects a forthcoming war in the Middle East. Even pro-government media is downplaying such speculation. The region is already ablaze, and all stakeholders are exhausted by the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Resistance bogged down

The three parties that would have reacted differently – in different times – are Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.

Syria’s army remains bogged down with domestic battles, with the real prospect of waging a new offensive against Kurdish separatists in the northeast and the jihadists of Idlib in the northwest. Iran is suffocating under US sanctions reimposed last November, while Hezbollah has been stretched extremely thin by the Syrian conflict.

The only tool presently at their disposal is international law, which still considers the Golan “occupied” territory. So do UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 497.

Syrian lawmakers can raise the issue before the International Court of Justice, but they are seemingly too busy with their own political battles, struggling for representation on the UN-mandated constitutional committee which should see the light in mid-2019.

“They are too busy to care about the Golan,” snapped Abu Nabil, a barber in the Souk Sarouja neighborhood of Damascus and veteran of the 1967 war against Israel.

A view of Mont Bental in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on January 20, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jalaa Marey

‘Setback’ becomes status-quo

The Golan Heights were occupied by Israel 52 years ago, after a swift six-day war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The conflict started as a minor border incident that snowballed into a full-scale aerial battle over the Golan, with then Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, who later became prime minister, threatening to march on Damascus.

That war, called the naksa in Arabic (or ‘setback’), had its name from a famous speech by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. He had led Arab armies to battle in the summer of 1967 and took the blame for their collective defeat, which – in addition to the loss of the Golan – led to the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula.

Returning to the pre-June 5, 1967, borders was the cornerstone on which Syria agreed to join the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991. Held under US auspices during the presidency of George HW Bush and subsequently Bill Clinton, those direct talks collapsed with the death of Syria’s long-time president Hafez al-Assad in June 2000.

Attempts at reviving them, albeit indirectly, were made by then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2008. Benjamin Netanyahu begrudgingly took part in the talks, partly in a desire to wiggle out of any agreement with the Palestinians, but he was never enthusiastic about returning the Golan to Syria.

The plateau was too strategic for him to give up, located a mere 60 kilometers from Damascus and providing Israel with a strong defensive and offensive position, with a birds’ eye view of Arab military maneuvers. It also feeds into the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee, both major water sources for Israel.

When asked about whether he was prepared to withdraw from the Golan to achieve peace with Syria, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir famously told an Egyptian journalist: “Have you ever heard of anybody changing his country’s own borders?”

Under pressure from President Clinton, Rabin in 1993 famously “deposited” an offer on the Golan to the Syrians, saying he would withdraw fully in exchange for full normalization and ending Syrian support for terror groups, a reference to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

He also demanded security arrangements and early warning stations for Israel on the plateau. Rabin even suggested inserting a brigade of American troops on the Golan to guarantee the Syrian-Israeli deal. The stark offer never took root and was finally torpedoed by Rabin’s murder by a Zionist fanatic in November 1995.

After five decades of Israeli occupation, the Trump administration insists it is recognizing “the reality on the ground.”

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