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June 19, 2018 7:33 am

US Interests Require Israel on the Golan Heights

avatar by Yoram Ettinger

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second from left) pictured during a security and defense tour of the strategic Golan Heights region near Israel’s northern border with Syria, April 2016. Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO.

JNS.org – US interests in the Middle East and beyond are well-served by a strategically contained Syria. Historically, Syria has been a tectonic, volatile platform of violent, intolerant, and unpredictable Arab/Islamic regional aspirations of grandeur, which is totally unconnected to Israel’s existence and policies.

During the modern era, Syria has been a major arena of anti-US hate-education and incitement, Islamic and international terrorism (e.g., the bombing of the US Embassy and Marines Headquarters in Beirut and Pan Am Flight 103), narco-terrorism (featuring ties with Latin American drug cartels), the mega-billion dollar counterfeiting of $100 bills, and the abuse of human rights.

Syria also represents a clear, present, and lethal threat to pro-US Arab regimes. It has been a systematic violator of agreements (with Lebanon, Turkey, the Arab League, the United States, and Israel); advanced the geostrategic interests of Iran, Russia, and China; benefited from North Korean conventional and non-conventional military technologies and hardware (chemical, biological, and nuclear); and fostered close ties with anti-US Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

A withdrawal of Israel’s military from the mountain ridges of the 500 square mile Golan Heights — located 34 miles from Damascus — would severely injure Israel’s posture of deterrence, reducing its capabilities to extend the strategic hand of the United States and thus making Syria dramatically more explosive.

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While Syria is currently preoccupied with domestic upheaval and civil war, its potential destabilizing regional and global ripple effects should be assessed in view of inherent Middle East volatility. It should also be observed against the background of Syria’s multi-century key role in the tumultuous 14-century history of Islam. It should further be examined against the backdrop of its current deep strategic ties with Russia, the megalomaniacal ayatollahs of Iran, the transnational ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and additional Islamic terror organizations that aim to erase the current borders among Arab states.

Syria’s imperialistic aspirations and potentially explosive regional impact under an Alawite or a Sunni regime transcend the narrow context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are a derivative of the unique role played by Syria — the home of the early Caliphs — in Islamic history. Therefore, the current Syrian powder keg has drawn an unprecedented number of Islamic terror organizations and jihad-driven fighters and terrorists from the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

An Israeli retreat from the Golan Heights would not quench, but rather inflame Damascus’ long-term historical aspirations to solidify control of Syria, reclaim Greater Syria (including Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel), and dominate the Arab world, which entails the toppling of all pro-US Arab regimes.

Just like Iran’s ayatollahs, future leaders of Syria regardless of sect might view the US presence in the Middle East as the major obstacle to reaching its megalomaniac strategic goal, considering Israel to be the most effective and inhibiting US outpost. Hence Syria’s deep strategic alliance with Russia since 1966, which has provided a tailwind to Moscow’s influence in the Middle East and the region. For example, Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is in Tartus, Syria.

In 1970, the militarily superior, USSR-supported Syria invaded the militarily inferior US-supported Jordan, which was involved in a civil war against Palestinian terrorists. Attempting to avoid a confrontation with the USSR, the United States requested Israel to mobilize the Israel Defense Forces to the joint Israel-Syria-Jordan frontier. Israel’s prompt mobilization triggered an immediate Syrian withdrawal from Jordan, bolstering Israel and the US’s posture of deterrence, injuring the geostrategic posture of both Syria and the USSR, and sparing America a mega-billion dollar mobilization and bruising public debate.

The Israeli deployment may have ensured the survival of the pro-US Hashemite regime in Jordan and prevented a Syrian occupation of the country, with a potential spillover into the militarily much weaker pro-US Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. This would have given Moscow a dramatic gain while dealing the US a major economic and geostrategic setback.

A Golan-less Israel would have been unable to provide the United States with such a cost-effective, dramatic benefit.

The inherent unpredictability, volatility, and violence in the Middle East suggests that similar scenarios could plague the region in the future, especially in view of Jordan’s growing vulnerability to external and domestic upheaval, requiring the enhancement of US-Israel strategic coordination. However, without the Golan Heights, which dominates northern Israel and the joint Syria-Jordan-Israel border, Israel would be transformed from a unique national security producer and a regional enforcer for the United States into merely another national-security consumer.

On June 29, 1967, General Earl Wheeler, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, submitted to President Lyndon Johnson a map of Israel’s minimum security requirements. The map was based on the general’s own assessment of US interests, Middle East reality, and Israel’s security requirements. It included Israeli control of the Golan Heights.

Yoram Ettinger is a consultant on US-Israel relations and the Middle East. He served as Minister for Congressional Affairs at Israel’s Embassy in Washington, DC; Israel’s Consul General to the Southwestern USA; and director of Israel’s Government Press Office.

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