Analysis

Trump’s Golan Tweet Brings U.S. Back to Syria Through the Back Door

More than just crude intervention in the April 9 election, Trump’s promise to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights is a slap in the face to Putin, and a show of force against Iran

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Donald Trump after the U.S. president's arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, May 22, 2017.
Jack Guez / AFP

The panic over a cyberattack swinging the Israeli election now seems less relevant after U.S. President Donald Trump’s use of the unsophisticated weapon known as Twitter. His announcement about the need to “fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights” and his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scheduled for next week represent crude intervention in the Israeli election campaign – without providing anything to bolster national security or change the military situation.

The recognition doesn’t cancel the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement between Syria and Israel after the Yom Kippur War. It won’t block the Iranian military build-up in Syria and won’t enable broader freedom of action for Israeli military operations, even with the existing coordination with Moscow.

After Israel overcame the crisis of the Americans’ recognition of Jerusalem as its capital and the transfer of the U.S. Embassy there, the Golan recognition will bring condemnations from the European Union, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Arab countries. But it’s doubtful this will lead to practical responses such as Russian sanctions against Israel, similar to the sanctions the Americans and Europeans imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea five years ago or the punishment Europe imposed on Turkey after its invasion of Cyprus 45 years ago.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made clear in October that any change in the Golan’s status outside a UN Security Council resolution would be considered a violation of existing agreements. But Lavrov avoided saying whether or how Russia would respond if the Golan’s status were changed because of a unilateral American decision.

Three months earlier, during the Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin press conference in Helsinki, Putin said that after “the terrorists are routed in southwest Syria, in the so-called southern zone, the situation in the Golan Heights should be brought into full conformity with the 1974 agreement on the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces. This will make it possible to bring tranquillity to the Golan Heights and restore the cease-fire between the Syrian Arab Republic and the State of Israel.”

Dreaming on

As Putin put it, Trump “devoted special attention to this issue today. I would like to emphasize that Russia has a stake in this course of events and will adhere to exactly this position. This will constitute a step toward establishing a just and durable peace on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 338.”

Putin’s comments at the time, as today, sounded more like a dream than policy. They make clear that Russia views the Separation of Forces Agreement as the only possible strategy. So last August the patrols by UN observers were partly restored, Russia built six observation bases along the Syrian side of the demilitarized zone and announced this week that as far as Russia was concerned, the UN observers could return to full operations.

A tourist posing on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, March 22, 2019.
Ariel Schalit / AP

Trump’s announcement shouldn’t change this strategy because Russia, which doesn’t recognize the annexation of the Golan, has an interest in keeping the Israeli-Syrian border quiet. This goal requires Russia to block any Iranian attempt to deploy its forces near the border and in doing so justify an Israeli military intervention in southern Syria.

At the same time, Trump’s announcement is a slap in the face for Putin and a show of force against Iran – and against Syrian President Bashar Assad too – because it brings the United States back into the Syrian arena through the back door. Trump has proved that even if he’s not involved in the fighting in Syria and won’t be involved in the Russian-led diplomatic process to end the civil war, he can still strike back in ways that directly harm Syrian sovereignty.

Leading Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are expected to condemn Trump’s declaration, but unlike the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – which shook the Muslim world because of the religious sensitivities – the Golan isn’t a universal holy site but only Syrian territory that needs to be liberated, from their point of view. In that sense, it's like the other territories that Israel took in 1967. But the Golan isn’t very high on the Arab or Muslim agenda.

Revenge all around

At the end of the month, the leaders of the Arab countries will gather for their annual summit in Tunisia; it will of course include a harsh condemnation of the American decision. And it will emphasize their opposition to the annexation of the Golan – but as far as they’re concerned the American declaration is a bit of revenge against Assad for massacring his own people.

At the same time, the revenge is a bit bitter because it’s coming from an American president who did nothing to help the people of Syria and is even willing to accept Assad as the country’s next president. And mostly, it serves Israel.

The question now is the extent Trump’s earth-shattering tweet jibes with the peace plan he’s crafting and that he’s expected to announce after Israel’s April 9 election. The technique for setting Trump’s unilateral policy, which aims to shake up the world order as if it were just a hobby, could actually deter the partners essential for his Deal of the Century – or at least put them under a threat that means “accept it or I’ll establish facts on the ground.” This isn’t exactly the style that encourages dialogue or negotiations.

In the assessment of the Palestinians and their supporters, Trump’s pattern of decision-making – such as the unilateral recognition of Jerusalem and the soon-expected recognition of the annexation of the Golan – could develop into a strategy for the West Bank and lead to American recognition of future annexations without consideration for the Palestinian, Arab or European positions.

Identifying such a strategy for Trump, back in the matter of Jerusalem, is one of the main factors behind Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to negotiate with the Americans so as not to grant legitimacy to what he considers an Israeli-American plan that he’ll be asked to rubber-stamp.

Not only the Palestinians will have to decide how to treat the peace plan: Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia will have to give their opinion on whether they’re willing to support a plan produced by a U.S. president who annexes Arab territory to Israel without asking them first, or build a wall that makes clear the limits to his freedom of action.

For now, this is a theoretical question because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi aren’t exactly in a position to challenge the president of the United States. For one of them, Trump is still his only defender in the world, while the other needs the economic support of the United States and the military backing of Israel.