Don’t Get Involved in Syria

Israel shouldn't be discussing buffer zones with Syria when the international community doesn't even recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory


Even before Thursday’s missile strike launched by U.S. Sixth Fleet destroyers at a Syrian air base on the order of President Donald Trump – and it is still too early to determine whether this has any long-term effect on the course of the civil war in Syria, and the involvement of the superpowers there – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started discussing the establishment of two buffer zones in southern Syria: one between Israel and Syria, and the other between Syria and Jordan. Both are meant to be on the Syrian side of the border and without any Israeli presence (Barak Ravid, Haaretz, April 7).

This is a dangerous idea that attempts to take advantage of an opportunity – the collapse of the Syrian regime during the six years of this interminable war that seems far from over – but could quickly turn into a costly trap. Israel does not need external safety cordons that would constitute de facto occupation, albeit by remote control, thereby perpetuating regional conflicts. The Golan Heights, captured during the Six-Day War in 1967 (with no one claiming they were “liberated”), was supposed to provide a physical separation between the Syrian army and Israel. Since Israel held onto the land and Syria did not accept its loss, returning the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty has become an objective of the Damascus regime. By the same logic, protecting the Golan would require capturing further areas in southwestern Syria.

A buffer between Syria and Jordan is a matter for those two countries to decide. The security zone in south Lebanon failed and Israel eventually withdrew the Israel Defense Forces to the recognized international border. The assessment that the Syrian state will never return to what it was before 2011, and that it is doomed to be split into regions based on geography or ethnicity, needs proving. No country, including the United States, has recognized the legitimacy of Israeli law and administration in the Golan Heights – a de facto annexation, even though official spokesmen in Jerusalem have denied this since 1981.

No one is expected to grant such recognition. On the contrary: calls for withdrawing all foreign forces from Syria as part of the conditions for ending the war there – a welcome move for Israel, in order to remove Iran and Hezbollah from its borders – could end up including similar demands with regard to Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights. This is because Russia, President Bashar Assad’s patron, is shaping up as the major power determining events in Syria, whereas the United States – despite its punitive and deterrent attack against the air base from which the chemical attack came (which has been justified by concerns over a vital U.S. national interest, namely, limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction) – will lose interest in Syria after a victory over Islamic State later this year.

Even if the world accepts a buffer zone east of the 1974 cease-fire and separation line, Israel could gradually get sucked in, battling hostile elements who insist on digging in. The idea is fundamentally flawed and better removed from the agenda.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.