He rocked back in his chair, looked up at the ceiling, closed his eyes, spread open his arms, and exclaimed in a triumphant tone, “I would be a hero.” This is how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded in the fall of 2008 to a question I asked him in a one-on-one meeting about engineering the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. It was one of those authentic moments that was unscripted. Creating the comfort level necessary for Assad to respond in this fashion took years of meetings.
His response was not surprising. The Golan Heights is an emotional issue with Syrians. Ever since it was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, its return has been ingrained in most Syrians as the sine qua non of Syrian policy. I have witnessed Syrians, especially the older generation, from cabinet level ministers to cab drivers burst into tears in front of me when discussing the issue. They fail to recognize that it was the radical wing of their Baathist government at the time that was partly responsible for generating the tensions that ignited the conflict.
Nevertheless, a UN-monitored ceasefire between Israel and Syria in the Golan, brokered by the United States in 1974, became one of the success stories of UN peacekeeping, as nary a shot was fired in either direction across the border until the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. However, this ceasefire did not prevent Israel and Syria from fighting each other by proxy, primarily in Lebanon. Despite this, there have been multiple occasions since the early 1990s Madrid peace process in which Syria and Israel have come tantalizingly close to a peace agreement.
Assad’s response to me was interesting in another way. It came within the context of our discussion of a potential quid pro quo, i.e. with the return of the Golan, the Syrian government would significantly degrade, if not totally abandon, its relationship with Iran, including Hizbullah in Lebanon. This was something at the time that Assad was seriously willing to consider. He understood the purely strategic nature of the Syrian-Iranian alliance forged by his father, one that provided strategic depth for Syria following the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979. Otherwise, the two governments are practically polar opposites: one is a Persian Islamic republic and the other has been at the vanguard of secular Arab nationalism, which is the DNA of the ruling Baath party.
Even if Assad was truly serious about that grand bargain back then, this sort of quid pro quo will be significantly more difficult today. Along with the Russians, Iran and Hizbullah have been the most active supporters of Assad in the civil war, without whom the Syrian regime would probably no longer exist. Naturally, as Assad has improved his position, Israeli concerns in the conflict have shifted from wondering what chaos would ensue on its border should the Syrian regime fall to attempting to minimize the Iranian presence as much as possible. The Israelis have been intensely negotiating with Moscow, the new power broker in Syria, in an attempt to get the Russians to reduce Assad’s reliance on Iran, all the while forcefully making their point by carrying out military strikes against Iranian and Hizbullah positions in the country. This is, to say the least, a volatile situation.
Under these circumstances, it is understandable that Israel would not want to even consider negotiations with Damascus regarding the Golan. Why would it do so in such a strategically ambiguous environment and with a regime that is still, despite recent success, not entirely secure in power? After all, Israel captured the Golan in 1967 in order to prevent Syria from enjoying the strategic high ground and to gain control of tributaries that feed into the Jordan River, the life blood of Israel. As such, some Israeli officials, wanting to hold on to this territory indefinitely, have been urging the Trump administration, fresh off of its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, something Israel did in 1981.
This would be a mistake on many levels. First, many fear that with a US imprimatur, Israel could be encouraged to annex the West Bank and East Jerusalem, thus closing what little chance remains for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Secondly, it would set an unhealthy precedent by which countries unilaterally absorb occupied territory without negotiation or international consent. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it would obviate the possibility of a peace accord with Syria for the foreseeable future. This could be an opportunity lost. For Assad, standing over a fractured and bleeding country, getting the Golan Heights back would be just the sort of slam dunk victory he needs in order to begin to rebuild his legitimacy with the Syrian people. With its “better the devil you know” mentality, Israel appears to have accepted Assad in power. Currently, it is allowing Syrian troops to re-establish authority along their side of the Golan. Going even further than that, returning the Golan under tight and reversible conditions could provide Damascus with the wherewithal for that which the Israelis most want: security.
The current ruling class in Syria is probably the last one where the loss of the Golan so completely framed their weltanschauung—and they are not getting any younger. On the other hand, the majority of the Syrian population is less than thirty years old. For them the civil war will forever rule their political psychology. And this generation, steeped in social media and the use of proxy servers, cannot be as brainwashed by government-controlled media or educational fiat as Syrians were in the past. The Golan could be seen by this younger generation as a bygone and misdirected obsession of their parents. Other things, such as the material and emotional rebuilding of the country, may be more important to them.
If a return of the Golan is delayed too much longer, any likely deal will be less generous to the Syrians. In turn, Assad will not be able to generate the internal support necessary to reduce the Iranian footprint. As much as the Russians might try, if diminishing Iran’s presence is not led by the Syrian government, it is unlikely to happen. Before the civil war, Assad showed on numerous occasions a willingness to counter Iran on important issues. It will be harder to do so now, which is why he needs lightning to strike. Assad’s views on this are worth exploring for both the Israelis and Americans. Certainly, any Syrian-Israeli agreement would asymmetrically demilitarize the Golan area in Israel’s favor, the parameters of which were agreed upon in the 1990s. With Assad remaining in power, this new approach to Syria could be a risk worth taking for Israel, but it can only do so if the Golan is there for the giving.