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Friday, April 10, 2009

Eiland: No way Israel can be secure without the Golan

As you may recall, the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government has talked about trying to make 'progress' on the 'Syrian track' as a means of deflecting pressure on Israel on the 'Palestinian track.' Former national security adviser Giora Eiland has published a paper through the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in which he argues that Israel cannot give up the Golan Heights (or any part of them) and maintain its security, and that negotiations conducted by the Netanyahu and Barak governments in the latter half of the last decade ignored that reality. (36-page pdf link).
When indirect Israeli-Syrian negotiations were renewed again in 2008 under Turkish auspices, they were conducted under the assumption that there was a military solution that would compensate Israel for the loss of the Golan and that such a solution was acceptable to the Syrians.

The purpose of this analysis is to demonstrate that Israel does not possess a plausible solution to its security needs without the Golan Heights. Not only was the “solution” proposed in the year 2000 implausible at the time, but changing circumstances, both strategic and operative, have rendered Israel’s forfeiture of the Golan today an even more reckless act.


A formal peace agreement between Israel and Syria is believed to be in the realm of the possible if Israel agrees to withdraw from the Golan to the June 4, 1967, line that puts the Syrians on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is plausible that given additional conditions (U.S. support), the Syrians would be genuinely interested in such an agreement.

Such a peace agreement would include four components:
1. The transfer of the entire Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty.
2. The maintenance of diplomatic relations between Syria and Israel.
3. A resolution of the water issue.
4. The maintenance of security arrangements that are intended to compensate Israel for the loss of the area.

However, irrespective of how advisable such an agreement may be from Israel’s perspective, and without relation to future security arrangements (which is the major purpose of this analysis), a dangerous tendency has been created in recent years by fostering the belief that a peace agreement with Syria would have positive repercussions in seven additional areas.

Unfortunately, it would be a dangerous illusion to believe that these seven contentions would become assured byproducts of an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.

1. “An Israeli-Syrian peace agreement will drive a wedge between Syria and Iran.”


Syria perhaps currently needs Iran, but Iran doesn’t need Syria. The greatest strategic threat to Israel is posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran. The continued existence of such a threat will not be influenced at all by whether there will be a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.

2. “A peace agreement between Syria and Israel will weaken Hizbullah.”


Since Syria can evade responsibility for what happens in Lebanon, and given that its continued interest is to reinforce Hizbullah even in the event of a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, it is clear that Hizbullah will continue to constitute a threat to Israel from Lebanon. It should be remembered that a close Syrian relationship with Hizbullah is critical for Syria in order for Damascus to safeguard its interests in Lebanon, which have always been a paramount consideration for the Syrian regime.

3. “An Israeli-Syrian peace agreement will prevent Hizbullah from arming.”


Since the Syrian interest to continue buttressing Hizbullah will exist even after the signing of a peace agreement with Israel, it may be expected that the weapons flow from Syria to Hizbullah will persist, even if the methods become more clandestine.


4. “A peace agreement with Syria will assist the Israeli-Palestinian track.”

One can assume that the reverse will be the case. Given the assumption that it will be difficult for Israel to manage both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks in tandem, the Palestinians are likely to feel that they are being reduced to a lower priority. It is plausible that this will engender frustration and that such frustration could possibly lead to the outbreak of a “third intifada.”

5. “A peace agreement between Syria and Israel will compel Syria to banish Hamas headquarters from Damascus.”

This may possibly occur, but why is it important where Khaled Mashaal, the exiled leader of Hamas’ political wing, resides? Furthermore, should a peace agreement exist between Israel and Syria, it may actually be preferable that Hamas headquarters be located in Damascus (which might be able to exert influence) rather than in Yemen, Sudan, or Somalia.

6. “The agreement will improve Israel’s relations with the Arab world.”

The Arab world is committed to the Palestinian issue, but not to the Syrian issue to the same extent. Just as the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and subsequently the Israeli-Jordanian agreement did not change the attitude of other Arab states toward Israel, an agreement with Syria may not make much difference. Moreover, the Arab world is divided between a pro-Iranian axis including Syria, Qatar, Hizbullah, and Hamas, on the one hand, and an anti-Iranian axis based on Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other states, on the other hand. Under present conditions, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are actually interested in isolating the Syrian regime today and would not respond well to any diplomatic move that gave Bashir Assad more international legitimacy.

7. “The peace agreement with Syria would enhance international support for Israel.”

The world is angry with Israel because of its “occupation” over the Palestinians and would like to see this problem solved. The influence of a peace agreement with Syria on Israel’s legitimacy would be negligible.


On the Golan Heights, the distance from the front line to the rear is minimal. More importantly, due to the structure of the terrain, any westward movement of the contact line from its present location would significantly degrade the ability to defend the territory.

Nevertheless, one can delineate two hypothetical border lines west of the current defense line. The first line could rest on the “rear ridge line” – located 3-5 km. west of the present border. It begins in the north at Jebel Keta (south of Majdal Shams) and continues southward to Tel Shiban, Mt. Shifon, Tel Fazra and Givat Bezek. There is little diplomatic logic to this line, but it would permit the transfer of three of the four Druze villages to Syria (not including Ein Kinya).

The second line is the “cliff line” 2-5 km. from the Jordan River. This is the last high area before the steep westward descent towards the Jordan, the Hula Valley, and the Sea of Galilee. From a diplomatic standpoint, an Israeli withdrawal to this line means forfeiting the entire Golan, including almost all the Jewish communities there.
From a military standpoint, there is some advantage in a stance on this line as opposed to a full withdrawal to the western side of the Jordan River. Continued Israeli control of both sides of the Jordan would increase the likelihood that the passage of forces to the Golan could be performed more expeditiously. In addition, Israeli possession of this line would diminish the exposure of Israeli force concentrations in the Hula Valley and the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee to flat trajectory Syrian fire.

To sum up, the present border line is the only one affording plausible defense for the State of Israel. It creates strategic depth, albeit minimal, and, in addition, this line exerts eastward control deep into Syrian territory. Any movement westward by Israel would create a considerable depreciation of Israel’s defensive capability, owing to the nature of the terrain that descends from east to west.

The two other possible defense lines mentioned here (the “rear ridge line” and the “cliff line”) are far worse, but they are still preferable to a border line located west of the Jordan River.
[Here's a topographical map of the Golan Heights - CiJ]

When the issue of a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights was raised in the 1990s, the first question discussed by the Israeli defense establishment was:

Can Israel begin its defensive battle in the Hula Valley? The answer was negative. There was a unanimity backed by the political echelon, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, that in order to defend itself, Israel had to begin its defensive battle at the line where it was presently stationed.

How could this conclusion be reconciled with the understanding that a peace agreement with Syria mandated a concession of the entire Golan Heights? The response was based on security arrangements that were intended to bridge the gap between conceding the Golan and creating a situation that would guarantee that in case of war, IDF forces could return to the place where they are currently stationed. This was an attempt to “do without but feel satiated.”

The idea was based on two components:
1. Israel would indeed concede the Golan and its most forward forces would take up positions below the Heights, but the territory itself would be totally demilitarized and the Syrian divisions would be moved back, eastward to the region of Damascus and even further.

2. Israel would retain an early warning intelligence base on Mt. Hermon and in this manner could identify any serious violation of the agreement.
On the basis of this security concept, as soon as the IDF would comprehend that Syria intended to go to war, or the moment that the movement of Syrian forces westward was identified, IDF forces could move rapidly eastward onto the demilitarized Golan Heights.


The security arrangements proposed in the 1990s was flawed in a number of ways. First, it relied on five dangerous assumptions, discussed below. Second, it addressed the single threat posed by mechanized Syrian divisions, while ignoring other threats whose gravity is increasing.


Five Problematic Assumptions

1. “When the war erupts, it will begin with a situation in which both sides are located where they are obligated to be.”


2. “The warning will be issued in real time.”


According to what was discussed in the year 2000, there was to be one warning station on Mt. Hermon. Currently, Israel has two large stations on Mt. Hermon that provide backup and an additional three stations along the entire length of the Golan Heights. There is no possibility that one station on Mt. Hermon will provide sufficient intelligence coverage. Additionally, it is clear that even with the station on Mt. Hermon manned by Israelis, there will always be various sorts of limitations on their number and their freedom of action.

3. “A correct interpretation will be made with regard to any Syrian violation.”


4. “The Israeli government will react speedily and vigorously to any serious violation.”


5. “The IDF will fulfill its plan by outracing the Syrian force and arriving at its positions on the “ridge line.”


With all due respect to the importance of Syrian ground forces, the major Syrian threat is predicated on two other components: ground-to-ground missiles and large quantities of chemical weapons. In discussions that took place in 1999-2000, no attempt was made to reduce the presence of these two capabilities. It is possible that this approach was foredoomed, but it is still important to realize that in return for a concession on a strategic asset of the first order – the Golan Heights – no reciprocal concession was made in terms of a reduction in Syrian strategic capabilities.


A forfeiture of the Golan Heights would create a situation where the IDF’s assembly areas in the Hula Valley would be within the effective range of Syrian mortars and artillery. The structure of the terrain also ensures that these areas would also be within the effective range of Syrian anti-tank missiles. We are no longer dealing with the Sagger missiles of Yom Kippur War vintage, but with advanced missiles with an effective range of 5 km., both day and night.

Additionally, improvements in anti-aircraft missiles and especially the existence of advanced shoulder-launched missiles will allow the Syrians to conceal them in built-up areas prior to the war and launch them from the most forward line at the beginning of the war.


In the foreseeable future, the sole possible peace agreement between Syria and Israel mandates an Israeli concession of the entire Golan Heights. It is possible that Israel would not be in such a predicament had Israeli prime ministers, from Rabin onward, not agreed explicitly or implicitly to such an arrangement. Theoretically, other solutions are possible (leasing the Golan Heights, joint sovereignty, a regional territorial agreement, etc.), but today it will prove almost impossible to induce the Syrians to consider any other idea aside from the full transfer of the Golan Heights to their sovereignty.

Such an agreement is possible, and it is a plausible assumption that the entire world will support its attainment. Contrary to its image, Iran would support such an agreement. Iran supported and will continue to support any arrangement that transfers areas from Israel to the Arabs. Since Syria will insist that the peace agreement with Israel has no bearing on the relationship between Damascus and other countries, this agreement will not weaken Syrian-Iranian ties. Neither would a peace agreement between Syria and Israel significantly curtail Hizbullah’s military and political power, since Hizbullah relies more on Iran and the support of the Shiite community in Lebanon. Public Syrian support is much less important to Hizbullah, and Syrian assistance in weaponry is guaranteed even following any peace agreement (even if Syria should pledge otherwise).

An Israeli-Syrian peace agreement would mandate Israel’s total withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The only room for negotiations would be in relation to two narrow strips of land, the first northeast of the Sea of Galilee and the second in the area of Hamat Gader [at the southern edge of the Golan Heights. CiJ]. These areas stem from the gap between the 1923 international boundary (the Israeli position) and the 1967 line (the Syrian position) that included Syrian encroachments on Israeli territory between 1949 and 1967. The possibility that Syria will consent to continued Israeli sovereignty in even part of the Golan (the cliff line) appears very slim.


Should a Sunni revolution occur in Syria, particularly if it is carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is totally unclear that the new regime will honor any agreement that was made by the “apostate” Bashar al-Assad.

Indeed, a peace agreement with Israel could serve as a catalyst for this revolution. Hafiz al-Assad and Bashar rule Syria with the aid of emergency security laws whose existence is justified by the “Israeli aggression.” If peace was made with Israel, this excuse would disappear and it would be hard for the regime to continue to repress the Sunnis in the same manner.

The Israeli-Syrian conflict, as opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a territorial conflict between two sovereign states. It resembles scores of conflicts throughout the world, some of them soluble and some of them not. The conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is an example of the insoluble category. In this situation it is preferable to continue managing the conflict rather than trying to solve it at an exorbitant price and risk. Should it ever be possible to reach another solution, then this can be re-examined.
Those who are able to should read the whole thing.


At 5:31 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

If the Syrian regime was overthrown and replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel's strategic situation in the north would change literally overnight. A withdrawal from the Golan would mean placing Israel's security in the hands of an Arab regime. No one can guarantee who Assad's successor might be. And there is no reason to expect peace with Syria to be any different than the one Israel now has with Egypt except the distance to Israel's cities is not a couple of hundred miles but literally a couple of miles down into the Galilee. In this day and age, Israel simply cannot survive without strategic defense in depth. The Golan provides that buffer in case of an enemy attack. That is why it must always remain part of Israel.


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