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No hope for Golan agreement while Assad remains

By Graham Cooke - posted Thursday, 19 April 2012

One of the lesser-known casualties of the current Syrian crisis is the possibility that the country will, at any time in the near future, be able to negotiate the return of the Golan Heights it lost to Israel 45 years ago during the 1967 Six-Day War.  

While the Jewish State’s continued hold on East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank is fuelled by religious and political undercurrents, the Golan Heights are an entirely strategic possession. A large plateau some 1000 metres above sea level, it dominates the Israeli border settlements in the valley below.  Before 1967 Syrian artillery kept up sporadic bombardments to the point where entire communities got used to going to bed in bomb shelters built beneath their homes.

The Golan’s eventual capture was the hardest and most bitterly fought campaign during the short conflict. While Israeli forces easily expelled Jordan from the West Bank and rolled the Egyptian army back to the Suez Canal, the relatively minor advances on the Golan, where the Syrians had the advantage of the high ground, was costly in lives and resources on both sides.


Conflict flared again during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but initial Syrian advances were more than wiped out by Israeli counter-attacks, and that is roughly where the situation rests today.

No one underestimates the strategic value of possession of the Heights. Just as Syria dominated and harassed the Israeli border settlements up to 1967, so do the Israeli occupiers overlook most of southern Syria all the way to the capital, Damascus just 60 kilometres away. Israeli military commanders have made no secret of the advantage this gives them in monitoring any possible aggressive movements on the Syrian side and are resisting any attempts to concede the territory.

There are lesser, but still important considerations. In a generally arid region, the Golan is a valuable source of water. Rainwater from the catchment feeds into the Jordan River and, in fact, now provides a third of Israel’s water supply.

It is a fertile wine and fruit producing region and also a source of winter sports which Israeli entrepreneurs have enthusiastically developed. 

Even so, Israel, and its main backer, the United States, still see a cooperative peace as the better option to the continued tensions resulting from military occupation. There have been numerous attempts to find a settlement based around a ‘land for peace’ agreement. In other words Syria could have the Golan Heights back as long as it pledged never to use them to launch an attack on Israel again.

That was on offer as late as 2009 when Syrian President Bashar al Assad said though his emissaries: “I will smile at you after I get back the Golan”. Israel insisted that the smile come first and the negotiations ended, as all other talks have ended, in complete failure.


The prospects of those talks resuming, or of Israel ever being able to trust a smile from President Assad again, have evaporated since the leader gave his armed forces free reign to crush the Arab Spring rebellion in his country. With numerous promises of ceasefires broken, and persistent reports of deadly attacks on unarmed civilians, it is hard to argue with the Israeli settler who said that if Assad has no qualms about shelling his own people, “what would he do to us if he were back on the Golan?”

Tel Aviv academic and former Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Alon Liel says that if negotiations were ever to resume over the Golan Heights, they would not be with President Assad “nor any regime that resembles the one he is still heading at this time”.  

These are not easy words for Liel to say. He is president of the Israel-Syria Peace Society and lives for the day when there can be a genuine settlement between the two countries, but sadly admits that his dream is now further away than at any time since Israeli forces fought their way on to the plateau almost half a century ago.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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