Washington DC, March 26 — On March 25, President Donald J. Trump signed an order proclaiming U.S. support for Israel’s annexation of the Golan. This act ended Washington’s opposition to any acquisition of territory by force– a principle that has been a key pillar of the global order since the United Nations was founded in 1945.
It also raised the prospect that Washington’s support for Israel’s other major act of Anschluss (= annexation)– that of Greater East Jerusalem, which Israel announced in 1967– may not be far behind.
This is far from the first time that Trump has upended long-held principles of U.S. foreign policy or international law. But with many still awaiting the long-delayed release of details of his “deal of the century” for Arab-Israeli peace, Trump’s open embrace of Israel’s Anschluss of the Golan just about guarantees that this new peace effort will be dead on arrival, if not aborted before birth.
Governments key to the “deal of the century” having any success or even credibility, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the EU, were swift to come out and criticize Trump’s support for the Golan Anschluss.
Washington’s new policy on Golan may well now allow the US company Genie Energy to go ahead and plunder the oil and gas reserves that its Israeli subsidiary discovered in Golan in 2015. (Genie’s “Strategic Advisory Board” includes former VP Dick Cheney, misogynistic Birthright co-founder Michael Steinhardt, and Rupert Murdoch…)
Trump’s step changes the political dynamic within Syria, too.
The neoconservative target on Syria
Independent Syria has long been in the cross-hairs of the many Zionist extremists and neoconservatives who wield such power in US politics. Syria has been subjected to U.S. sanctions continuously since 1979. In the mid-1990s, when key neoconservatives released their landmark document on the Middle East, “A Clean Break”, it argued mainly for two policy changes: a “break” from Washington’s longheld support of the principle of “land for peace”, and the overthrow of central government power in Syria.
Syria was for long clearly identified as the neocons’ main target– much more so than Iraq, though in 2002-3 they lined up in droves to push for the invasion of chronically sanctions-weakened Iraq first… with many arguing strongly that the next destination after Baghdad should be Damascus.
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he was given a good chance to de-escalate the continuing tensions with Syria. I know, because I was part of a discreet “Track Two” effort to achieve this. Obama turned down the opportunity. He rejected the minor, “confidence-building” measures our US-Syrian group had proposed, for both sides, and chose to continue Washington’s generous funding of Syrian oppositionists, instead.
In 2011, those US-funded oppositionists latched onto anti-government protests emerging in some Syrian cities. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were then quick to issue calls for the complete overthrow of the Syrian government. They also (with the CIA’s help) arranged huge amounts of the weapons seized from Libya’s former arsenals to be sent to Syria’s very speedily militarized opposition. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were also massive participants in this “Syrian Contras” effort; but Washington’s support for the regime-change project in Syria was always also crucial.
Throughout the Obama years, whenever the UN or other bodies proposed a negotiated way to end Syria’s civil war and its horrors, those efforts met with Washington’s blunt and breathtakingly imperialistic insistence that the Syrian president “must leave now,” before there could be any negotiations. Throughout those years, too, jihadi extremists from around the world crossed into Syria to join up with either ISIS (which Washington opposed) or with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and its many satellites, which had completely taken over Syria’s opposition movement and which Washington was powerless to oppose.
Throughout those years, Israel became increasingly active inside Syria. It provided arms and support to some of the Syrian Contra units fighting in the south of Syria—and it used the air superiority it enjoyed until recently over all of Syria and Lebanon to launch scores of bombing raids against targets deep inside Syria. (The increased military support that Syria has received since late 2015 from its longtime ally, Russia, helped shift the dynamic on the ground in Syria in the government’s favor; and more recently, Russia has also bolstered Syria’s air defenses.)
Throughout the years of Syria’s civil war, Israel became increasingly bold inside occupied Golan as well.
The Israeli occupation of the Golan
The record of Israel’s occupation of the Golan is generally little known in the West. Golan is a region that runs east from the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, up a steep escarpment, to a broad, fertile plateau skirted by amply rainfed slopes. Before the Israeli military occupied Golan in a surprise maneuver in 1967, it had a population of around 140,000. At and after the time of the IDF’s invasion, some 130,000 of those residents fled or were chased out. You can still see some of their deserted villages along the roads there, today.
In 1968, Israel’s Labour government started building settlements in Golan. At the beginning, they were not viewed as necessarily permanent—more as bargaining chips for a future negotiation. The vast majority of the early settlers there were (unlike those in the West Bank) Labour supporters. They were only too happy to take their families to those beautiful plateaus whose long-established cherry and apple orchards and vineyards were all there for the easy picking…
The small number of Golani Syrians who resolutely stayed in their homes were nearly all residents of five predominantly Druze villages clustered on the slopes of Jebel Al-Shaikh (sometimes known as “Mount Hermon”). When I visited Golan in 1998, some of the elders told me they had abiding folk memories of the uprising the Druze had launched against the French in 1927. They said their community had learned then that staying in place during surrounding strife is nearly always the best policy.
Today, there are some 25,000 Syrian citizens still living in occupied Golan, along with roughly the same number of Israeli settlers. The Israeli settlements are spread out broadly across the stolen lands of the departed Syrians, while the “occupied” Syrians have their access to land and water sharply curtailed.
As for the large numbers of Syrians displaced in 1967, they had fled deeper into Syria. Since they never crossed an international border they were known as “internally displaced people” (IDP’s, or in Arabic nazeheen) and they never showed up on any UN rosters as “refugees.” Today, they and their descendants number some 700,000. They all still have deeds and keys to the homes and farms they were displaced from in 1967.
In 1981, the Israeli Knesset formally annexed Golan. The following year, the Israeli authorities tried to force the “occupied” Syrian citizens still living in Golan to take Israeli citizenship. The Golani Syrians refused. But they’ve had Israel’s “Druze education” system and numerous other onerous regulations forced onto them.
The Israeli military also has numerous bases in the Golan. In some of these, it almost certainly stores nuclear-capable “Jericho-2” missiles. From others, perched high on Jebel al-Shaikh, it is capable of looking deep into all the rest of Syria.
The global response?
Trump’s decision to give official US support to Israel’s Anschluss in Golan was almost certainly intended as a big political gift to Benjamin Netanyahu as he enters the final weeks of Israel’s current election. It is a gift, too, of course, to all the rapacious investors and resource-thieves lining up with Genie Energy (and the settler-run “Golani” winemakers) who are only too eager to make mega-profits from Golan’s looted natural bounty.
The big question, regarding this latest strong pro-Israel lurch in US policy as with Trump’s earlier decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, is what the rest of the global community will do about it?
We know the Security Council will be shamefully unable to act on this matter because of Washington’s veto. But what can other parts of the UN, other international institutions (including financial institutions), other governments, and international civil society do to hamper the plots of Genie Engineering and its associated, and to protect the rights of the Golani Syrians who still live in Golan, the Golani Syrians exiled from it—and the rest of Syria’s citizens who have the right to have a country that is whole, free, and at peace?
A good first step is to commit to learning about Syria’s history and current situation in its own terms, rather than in the cartoonish, “demonic” way they have been portrayed in most of the Western discourse for far too long. Another is to be sure to include the issue of Golan and protecting the rights of the Syrian Golanis in all the efforts of the worldwide BDS movement. And just as legal steps are now being taken against those entities profiting off resources stolen from within the West Bank, so too should extensive legal measures be launched against all entities stealing resources from Golan. International law demands no less. (Indeed, in the face of Trump’s blatant lawbreaking, it demands far more.)