Power play and wars of influence: What is the importance of the Golan Heights

Power play and wars of influence: What is the importance of the Golan Heights
Explainer: The Golan Heights has a political and strategic importance. We take a deeper look into what it is and why it is so significant considering recent escalating tensions.
6 min read
10 May, 2018
Israel has vowed that the Golan will remain permanently under its control [Getty]
What was long Israel's quietest border has witnessed an escalating series of flare-ups over past months. The latest of which, a barrage of Iranian rockets sparking a colossal Israeli response against Iranian military positions in Syria, has led some to fear all-out war between Israel and its Assad-allied adversaries stationed in the war-torn country, and vying for control of the Middle East.

However the full significance behind the contentious patch of Israeli-occupied Syrian territory is not always entirely understood. Despite spanning an area of only 1,800 km², the Golan represents an area of not only strategic benefit, but of symbolic value and powerful influence, and is quickly becoming the centrepoint of the Syrian war.

Historical background

The Golan Heights, constituting the southwesterly tip of Syria, was invaded and occupied by neighbouring Israel in the later stages of the 1967 war, during which Israel also took the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai.

More or less immediately after the Golan Heights fell under Israeli control, settlers began to move in as the vast majority of the 130,000-strong population, including 17,000 Palestinian refugees, fled. The Golan Heights are now home to over 30 Israeli settlements.

Syria attempted to recover the Golan during the 1973 war, but their surprise assault on Israeli forces was rebuffed. The two countries signed a ceasefire in 1974, and since then UN observers have been stationed along the armistice line.

Despite this, Israel annexed the territory completely in 1981, but the international community still recognise the Golan as Syrian land.

Binyamin Netanyahu has recently declared that Israel will never return the Golan Heights.

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Who lives there?

The scenic rocky plateau is far less populated now due to an exodus of Syrians in the wake of the 1967 invasion.

Before the war, the Golan was home to approximately 130,000 Syrian Arabs, who left in droves in the wake of the violence of the 1967 war.

Israel demolished most homes and villages in the Golan to make way for the new settlements in the enclave.

Now only 25,000 Arabs remain, most of whom belong to the Druze community - an Arabic-speaking sect who practise an offshoot of Ismaili Islam and mostly pledge allegiance to Syria, rather than the Israeli occupiers.

The Israeli settler population in the Golan sits at around 20,000.

Strategic importance

The elevated plateau of the Golan, from which the Syrian capital Damascus can be seen, has always made it an important military observation point, and allows border-conscious Israel to keep a constant eye on its neighbours.

Its power as a buffer area from hostile neighbours is however its prime function. But Israel is not the only nation to understand the strategic significance of the border territory.

"Israel regards the Golan Heights, which it occupied from Syria back in 1967, as a northern buffer zone, separating Israel proper from Syria," explains Ahron Bregman, Arab-Israeli specialist at King's College London. 

What Israel tries to do is to keep hostile elements out of there, not letting them take advantage of the chaos in Syria and turn the Golan into a new front with Israel

"What Israel tries to do is to keep hostile elements out of there, not letting them take advantage of the chaos in Syria and turn the Golan into a new front with Israel," Bregman adds.

Taking advantage of war-torn and fractious Syria is exactly what Iran is trying to do, Bregman adds, exactly as it did with Lebanon during its civil war.

In fact, the Golan's proximity to southern Lebanon, the heartland of the Iran-backed paramilitary group Hizballah, has heightened Israeli fears that the militant group may also get involved in fighting.

As the Syrian war complicates and intensifies, Israel has felt the need to extend its Golan buffer zone, particularly in response to Hizballah in Syria making small gains nearing the territory.

In order to do this, Israel too has been establishing an army of proxies. For years now, it has been funding, arming and giving medical assistance to at least seven rebel groups in southern Syria to create what it calls a "border force" of protection.

However with both Hizballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards "so uncomfortably close to Israel, it is unlikely to accept their continued presence," says Reinoud Leenders of KCL.

This relatively new double threat, Leenders adds, threatens to upset Israel's decades-long dominance over Syria at the border, and its dangerous unpredictability "could prompt any of the protagonists to take preemptive action."   

Latest escalations

Tit-for-tat attacks in the Golan, despite being notably on the rise in recent months, date back to far before the occupation.

The pattern of provocation and retaliation play into a pattern of Israeli hyper-alertness and creeping Iranian aggression as they compete to spread influence across Syria's chaotic battlefields.

The latest escalation therefore, does not come as a big surprise to many.

"Israel's recent bombing of Syria is a standard modus operandi of the Israeli security establishment," says Laleh Khalili, Professor of Middle Eastern Politics at SOAS.

"It creates a constant state of military alertness. This constant state of military alertness is necessary for keeping the country perpetually militarised, the Israeli population perpetually docile, and the Israeli security establishment constantly fed and watered with armaments from every country that chooses to sell to them."

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This aggressive alertness is a common tactic of settler-colonial states, "not too different frankly than Apartheid South Africa and its neighbours," adds Khalili.

"Moshe Dayan once explained this politics of provocation. After 1948 and before annexation of Golan, the area was demilitarised, but Israel liked to keep provoking Syria.

"We would send a tractor to plow some area where it wasn't possible to do anything in the demilitarised area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn't shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that's how it was.

"There really is not much more rationality behind it. Israel's provocations are about symbolism and about maintaining internal control and the militarist system in place."

What next?

Despite the international community's calls for calm, mediation efforts are stunted.

The intensity of Israel's bombardment of Syria - the biggest Israeli strike on its neighbour in four decades - may have destroyed Iranian military infrastructure but will have only stoked its need to retaliate, possibly with the help of their Lebanese allies.

"We are at a most sensitive junction at the moment," says Bregman. "The Israelis hit the Iranians very hard. The current 'mini crisis' could well deteriorate into a war of attrition between Israel and Iran on the Golan."

"The Iranians may even resort to their 'heavy' weapons -  that is Hizballah in Lebanon - instructing it to open fire too."

Despite a day of calm on what was once a quiet border territory, history tells us that the next escalation - possibly the biggest one yet - is only a matter of time away.

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