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The US decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights has taken the realistic approach in international relations rather than the legal approach. This means that the international action is largely unconcerned with the rules or norms of international law.

Based on that, and in light of the great flaws in the current domestic, regional and international balance of power to Israel’s advantage, the possible scenarios are as follows: The first scenario is that internationally, countries will gradually follow in Trump’s footsteps; and the second scenario, Syria would call on the United Nations (UN) Security Council to assert its decisive right in the Golan Heights. The third scenario is to bet on Trump failing the next presidential elections, and a democratic president winning it (or a republican), who would retract Trump’s Golan decision. Whereas the fourth scenario is in keeping the status quo, where all parties keep their positions, Israel would build facts on the ground, and the chances for an international gradual support for the annexation of the Golan Heights would increase.

The last one is the most probable, although there are some other scenarios, such as the catastrophic one of dividing Syria, and the military one, where armed resistance against the Israeli occupation of Golan would be launched, while benefitting from the experience of resistance in southern Lebanon. The implementation of this scenario is hard but not impossible, and can be developed with time. There is also the negotiations scenario, where both the Syrian and Israeli sides would negotiate the future of Golan.

Finally, it is necessary to emphasize that the American decision is rejected, and to take all the political, media and legal measures to confront the decision at all levels, while supporting the steadfastness of the people of the Golan in the face of the Israeli occupation.

First: The International Environment for the Golan Issue: Realism and Legalism

Realism in international relations is based on the idea that a state tries to increase its power by expanding its sphere of interests (Traditionalists: Morgenthau and his school of thought); or the state pursues more power to preserve its security and interests, in the absence of a central authority, leading to an international anarchy (Neorealists: Kenneth Waltz and his school of thought). In this case, international action becomes unconcerned with the international law or its norms, except for the variables that assist the political action.

As for legalism, it is based on the notion that the international community has institutions that control the peaceful and non-peaceful international interactions, through a network of International and regional organizations, conventions, norms and traditions. Hence, these international institutions ensure the rights of states.

Comparing the two perspectives, it seems that the international stage prefers realism over legalism, especially in international political conflicts. For example, and despite the relative stability in the number of interstate conflicts (2–5 wars per year), and their decline in the period 1946–2018, the intrastate conflicts are considerably rising, from 10 wars in 1946 to 47 armed conflicts in 2016. However, the success of the United Nations (UN) (Legalism) in the settlement of intrastate or interstate conflicts did not exceed 7%, despite the considerable increase of UN peacekeepers deployed all over the world.[1]

This reinforces the importance of neorealism over legalism in the settlement of disputes. It is noted that the 2018 Global Peace Index (GPI) found that the global level of peace has deteriorated by 0.27% in the last year (2018), marking the fourth successive year of deteriorations, and it has deteriorated by 2.38% since 2008.[2]

This means that the environment of the Golan crisis (Weakness of international institutions in settling the conflicts legally, on one hand, and the GPI linear deterioration during the past ten years, on the other) is not affected by legalism as much as realism, and this defines the general frame for constructing the future scenarios of this crisis.

If added to the above the fact that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—where the Golan is located—remains the world’s least peaceful region among the nine regions of the world,[3] the evidence of realism increases, especially that the decision of US President Donald Trump (Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and Jerusalem) has definitely ended the “land for peace” formula on which the peace settlement was built. This means going back to the pre-1991 Madrid conference conditions.

 Second: The Golan Heights Between the Two Perspectives

As soon as Trump signed the presidential proclamation, on 25/3/2019, which officially recognizes the Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights occupied since 1967, the discussions about the future of the Syrian Heights returned. Trump’s proclamation stated:

The State of Israel took control of the Golan Heights in 1967 to safeguard its security from external threats. Today, aggressive acts by Iran and terrorist groups, including Hizballah, in southern Syria continue to make the Golan Heights a potential launching ground for attacks on Israel. Any possible future peace agreement in the region must account for Israel’s need to protect itself from Syria and other regional threats. Based on these unique circumstances, it is therefore appropriate to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. [4]

The roots of this US position go back to 1975, when on 1/9/1975, the then US President Gerald Ford sent a letter to the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stating that “any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.” [5] This commitment was re-affirmed by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1996. [6]

This means that when the Knesset ratified the Golan Heights Law in December 1981, it was based on a previous US promise, despite the fact that it is contrary to the official US position. May be the suspension of President Ronald Reagan of the strategic agreement between the two countries, after Israel’s decision to annex the Golan, then inviting Prime Minister Begin for an official working visit at the White House and resuming the strategic dialogue between the two,[7] reinforces the notion that Trump’s decision is not separate from the US administration’s tendencies. In April 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement was on the same note saying, “The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands. Israel will never come down off [from] the Golan Heights.” [8]

Consistent with the US new position, the State Department acknowledged the change in its annual human rights report of 2019, which considered the Golan Heights to be “Israeli-controlled” instead of the past designation “Israeli-occupied.”[9] And this asserts that realism is outgrowing legalism.

 Third: The Legal Status of the Golan Heights

As the Golan Heights were of the territories occupied in the 1967 war, the UN Security Council Resolution 242 established a clear and explicit principle that emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” This position was reinforced by the UN Security Council resolution 497 (1981), in addition to 76 UN resolutions refusing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49/6). [10]

In reality, all world countries—without any exception—did not accept the Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, since they were occupied in 1967. Then came Trump’s proclamation, which opposes even the opinion of the State Department Legal Adviser to the committee of international relations of the House of Representatives, stating the illegality of the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories including the Golan Heights. [11]

Clearly, the international community did not accept Trump’s proclamation, and no other country has supported it.

 Fourth: Realism: Israeli Incentives to Control the Golan Heights

The Golan’s overall land mass is 1,860 km2, out of which 266 km2 is a buffer zone between the Syrian and Israeli forces, which the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) maintains. Concerning the Golan occupied area, there are discrepancies concerning its exact area, Israel claims it’s 1,150 km2, Syria says it’s 1,500 km2, while the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stated it’s 1,300 km2. [12] It has an 80 km border with Jordan and occupied Palestine, through which passes the ceasefire line (Purple Line). In 2016, the Golan population was around 49 thousand, including 22 thousand Israeli settlers living in 33 settlements, and 27 thousand Syrians [13] who refuse to take Israeli citizenship and keep their Syrian citizenship. [14]

The Israeli motives to annex the Golan Heights can be defined as follows:

1. Security: The Golan has a high strategic value, as it overlooks southern Lebanon, northern Israel and most of the Syrian south, while being only 31 km away from the Syrian capital Damascus. Since 2011, Israel has been using the turmoil in neighboring Syria—the civil war—as a pretext to entrench its security claims, expressing its concerns over the impact of the Syrian chaos on its security, claiming that if Iran and Hizbullah stay in the area, they would “pose an existential threat to Israel,”[15] especially that the Golan overlooks a large area of Israeli settlements.

2. Settlement Expansion: Few days after Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the Israeli government announced a plan to construct 30 thousand settlement units to accommodate 250 thousand settlers by the year 2048, in the occupied Syrian Golan. The plan was drafted and prepared by the Ministry of Housing and in cooperation with the Golan Regional Council.[16]

3. Exploiting the Golan’s Natural Resources: Water, Oil or Gas: There are a number of rivers that flow into the Golan, such as the Jordan river, Banias river, Yarmouk river (whose total length is 57 km, out of which 47 km pass through Syrian soil, especially the Golan), the Hasbani river (whose springs are located in Lebanon, then it flows through the Golan to end up in the Jordan river), and the two rivers Zakiyeh and Masadiyeh, which flow into the Lake Tiberias, in addition to a considerable number of springs. According to the Israel National Water Company (Mekorot), one third of Israel’s drinking water, irrigation water and water for various uses come from the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon.[17] The Heights also provide 21% of Israel’s grapes production, 50% of mineral water production and 40% of its beef production. It is known that water was one of the major reasons of the Israeli-Syrian dispute, when Israel transferred the sources of the Jordan River and caused the outbreak of the 1967 war. [18]

In the early nineties, the Israeli government awarded the first license to drill for oil in the Golan Heights, where 2 million barrels of oil were discovered. During Yitzhak Rabin’s term (1992–1995), drilling was suspended due to the launch of the peace process, but in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu approved resuming the oil drilling. In 2012, the Government Companies Authority (GCA), headed by Tzipi Livni (Foreign Minister 2006–2009), decided that the drilling permits would be returned to the governmental gas and oil drilling companies, then the drilling license was awarded to the Genie Energy company. [19]

Perhaps these motives explain the position of the Israeli public opinion concerning Golan, constituting a source of pressure and support for this policy of the Israeli government. Various surveys prove the consistency of this position as follows:

Surveys of Israeli Public Opinion Regarding the Return of Golan Heights to Syria [20]

This table indicates the following:

a. The support for keeping the Golan Heights among party blocs has been clearly higher than among the public opinion (Noting that the Palestinians of the 1948 occupied territories were excluded from these surveys). This means that the political decision, subject to the political parties, will be in favor of keeping the Golan.

b. The support of party blocs and the public opinion for keeping the Golan Heights prevents any Israeli government from returning them. In the Sinai peninsula’s case, the support for keeping it was the least compared to the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan, which eased the government’s decision to withdraw. In the Golan’s case, it is much harder.

 Fifth: Regional Realism

The other side of the Golan Heights political environment is that realism prevails overthe regional and national environment, whose features are:

1. The erosion of the Syrian material and moral power during the civil war, and foreign interference. The Israelis think that such a situation makes Syria incapable of any military action to regain the Golan by force. The Israeli political thinking tends to further weaken Syria, where some Israeli studies, in which Zvi Hauser (Israel’s Cabinet Secretary 2009–2013) participated, tend to plan the partitioning of Syria into six states, then holding a referendum among the Golan citizens (including settlers) on the Heights’ fate. [21]

2. The Arab political, economic and social weakness due to the continuous turbulence since 2010, and the consecutive/successive normalization of Arab countries with Israel, on different levels, enhances Israeli relaxation over the Golan issue.

3. The resistance axis has been subjected to unprecedented pressure, through the economic siege on Syria, Iran and Hizbullah, and by listing armed organizations (Hizbullah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)…) as terrorist. This makes Israel feel that the ability of these organizations to change regional power balances is limited.

4. The Israeli official and public impression that the refusal of international active forces to the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights is just a “verbal” position. This was evident in the positions of the UN Secretary-General, Russia, EU, China and Turkey. [22]

At the end of March 2019, the European Union unanimously declared their rejection of Trump’s proclamation,[23] followed by Turkey, China, the Russian Federation, the Arab countries, and the UN.[24] Nevertheless, none of these took any “practical” steps, deeming these stances less important in the future, and especially in light of the results of the “European sanctions slapped on Russia after the annexation of Crimea five years ago, or the punitive steps taken by Europe against Turkey following its invasion of Cyprus 45 years ago.” [25]

 Sixth: Future Scenarios

In light of the dominance of realism over legalism, and in light of the great imbalance of power at the domestic, regional and international levels of conflict, the possible, probable and preferable futures concerning the Golan Heights are as follows:

1. Other countries would gradually follow in the footsteps of Trump: i.e., international recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Perhaps the balance of power on the aforementioned three levels enhances the likelihood of this scenario. Following suit internationally may start calmly by some marginal countries at first, then the most understanding countries of Israeli interests in the sovereignty over the Golan may follow (such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Lithuania…). It may start symbolically violating the 2015 EU decision that some goods produced on land seized in the 1967 war must be labeled “made in settlements.”[26] Israel is betting on such an orientation, for researchers indicate that there were similar historical precedents like: The Taiwan issue, Kashmir, Gulf of Iskenderun (formerly Alexandretta), Crimea… and other territories that have been separated from their State, which the world eventually either implicitly or explicitly recognized.

2. Syria would bring the issue to the UN Security Council: betting on the “force” of law and international norms. However, as long as the US has the power of veto, taking any decision in the UN Security Council that opposes Trump’s decision would be impossible; especially that not recognizing the sovereignty of Israel over the Golan completely opposes Trump’s policy. Even if we assumed that the US would abstain from voting on such a resolution, the implementation of it by having effective international action would prompt a number of European countries to refrain from supporting it, even some (like the UK and France) may veto it.

3. Betting on Trump’s failure in the next presidential elections: in November 2020, when the winning new democrat (or republican) president reviews Trump’s decision concerning the Golan. A similar precedent to this is the Iranian nuclear deal that Trump withdrew the US from, despite signing it by Obama.

Theoretically, this scenario is probable, but it depends on how much pressure the new US administration would faces from the three levels of conflict (domestic, regional, and international). Hence, it becomes possible rather than probable, especially that the nine presidents who had ruled the US before Trump since 1967 (four democrats and five republicans) did not take a similar step.

This means, theoretically, the general US and international trends are not with Trump’s decision, for his decisions (Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the “deal of the century,” Israel sovereignty over the Golan, financial pressure on the Palestinians…) have paralyzed the US mediation role in the region’s conflict, and isolated the US from the international community. Therefore, the next president—in case Trump failed in the next elections—“may” review the decision, especially that the Democrats were skeptical of Trump’s decision. [27]

4. The status quo scenario: Syria would keep its public stance that refuses the US proclamation but without any action, while Israel would stay in the Golan and continue its settlement building, changing of the demographics. That is repeating the scene since 1973, which is similar to the Kashmir case between India and Pakistan.

5. The catastrophic scenario: Two Israeli researchers suggested this scenario, which is based on two levels: [28]

a. To continue with the internal Syrian crisis until decentralizing and splitting up Syria into 6 states on ethnic and sectarian basis, where the Golan would be one of those.

b. Holding a referendum in the suggested “Golan State” on accepting Israel’s annexation of the territory, independence, or returning the Heights to Syria. Since the settlers’ population is fast increasing, which will allow them to participate in the referendum, the vote result would be accepting Israel’s annexation of the territory. Consequently, this matter would be considered legal, and according to the two researchers, it is similar to when Russia annexed Crimea, the James Baker Plan envisioned “Moroccan settler”s voting on the fate of Western Sahara, and when the Kofi Atta “Annan Plan allowed Turkish settlers in Northern Cyprus to vote on the island’s fate.” [29]

6. The military scenario: Syria would (unilaterally or with its allies) conduct a military operation similar to that of the 1973 war to regain the Golan Heights by force. In that Syria may follow two approaches:

a. Conduct unilateral military action after rearranging its internal status.

b. Replicate the experience of liberating southern Lebanon, by conducting popular resistance and guerrilla wars led by the Syrians, Hizbullah, Iran, some armed Iraqi groups, and Palestinian factions. Perhaps this is the most worrisome scenario to Israel, for despite its extreme difficulty it may happen, but in this assessment, it is not possible to delve into more details, especially concerning the conditions in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.

7. The negotiations scenario: Along the other scenarios, there may be a growing tendency that Israel and Syria would go back to the negotiations table, based on the fact that some Syrian parties hope that the Golan reaches the same state as the Sinai desert did (i.e., An Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the Syrian presence would be limited to its internal security forces, international observer forces would be stationed there, in addition to the diplomatic recognition and complete normalization between the two sides).

Some opine that the position of Trump and Israel in the Golan is no more than a position for negotiations, to wrench out more concessions on the expense of the whole Palestine issue. It is also to prepare the scene for the “deal of the century,” by threatening some (Syria) and luring others (Israel) as follows:

a. Threatening Syria: Trump took the Golan decision so that he would negotiate with the Syrians over it, within the “deal of the century.” He would be willing to reverse his decision if Syria established a comprehensive peace, recognition and normalization with Israel. For he considers Syria the most important Arab opponent to Israeli politics.

b. Enticing Israel: Some see that Trump’s decision on the Golan is but a tactic to “entice” Netanyahu to offer more concessions in the Palestinian case. [30]

 Seventh: Conclusion

By going back to the three levels of conflict (domestic, regional, and international), it turns out that the balance of power (including its material and moral variables, and their management) is imbalanced in favor of the Israeli side.

Thus, realism heavily outweigh legalism in this conflict, especially with the first indicators of the “deal of the century.”[31] The crisis environment and the dominance of realism would allow Israel more intransigence, it may develop and acquire a wider Arab recognition of Israel as a political entity, while Syria would need to heal and rebuild its economic and social structure over a 7–10 year period. Therefore, the “status quo” scenario is the most likely in the foreseeable future.

As the future holds a (low probable and highly effective) variable, the military scenario, despite its difficulty, remains open. However, it depends on the changes in the Arab, regional and international environment.

 Eighth: Recommendations

1. Refusing the US proclamation, considering it an assault against Syria’s genuine and full right to Golan, deeming it a support of the Israeli occupation and aggression, and considering it a violation of international law and covenants.

2. Launching political, media and legal campaigns to support Syria’s right to its land and retrieving the Golan Heights.

3. Supporting the steadfastness of the Golan citizens, who are facing the Israeli occupation and resisting Israeli settlement projects.

4. The issuing of Arab, Islamic and international decisions that refuse the US proclamation and support the Syrian right to retrieve the Golan.

5. To garner more of the Arab, Islamic and international support against the expansionist Israeli project, and promote official and popular action to face the normalization with Israel.

* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Walid ‘Abd al-Hay for authoring this strategic assessment.

[1] Lars-Erik Cederman and Yannick Pengl, “Conflicting News: Recent Trends in Political Violence and Future Challenges,” International Conflict Research, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHzürich), 20-21/2/2019, site of United Nations (UN),
[2] Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), Global Peace Index 2018: Measuring Peace in a Complex World (Sydney: IEP, June 2018),
[3] Ibid., p. 2.
[4] United States of America: After 50 Years, the Golan Heights IS Israel, site of, 26/3/2019,
[5] Gerald Ford Administration: Letter to Israeli Prime Minister Rabin (September 1,1975), site of Jewish Virtual Library,; and site of Center for Israel Education,
[6] Zvi Hauser and Isaac Zarfati, Recognition of Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights (Coalition for the Israeli Golan, January 2018).
[7] Ibid., p. 21.
[8] Ibid., p. 25.
[9] Clyde Hughes, State Dept. report says disputed Golan Heights ‘controlled’ by Israel, site of United Press International, 14/3/2019
[10] Resolution 497, Israel-Syrian Arab Republic, 17/12/1981, site of UNSCR,
[11] “United States: Letter of the State Department Legal Adviser Concerning the Legality of Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories,” International Legal Materials Journal, Cambridge University Press, vol. 17, no. 3, May 1978, pp. 777-779,
[12] Site of Permanent Mission of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations,; The World Fact Book, site of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), ; and site of Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Statistical Abstract of Israel 2011, no. 62, table 1.1.
[13] The World Fact Book, CIA, p. 20.
[14] The Golan Heights factor and the future of destabilized Syria, site of Daily Sabah, 7/5/2019,
[15] Zena Agha, “What’s Driving Israeli Claims to the Golan Heights?” site of Foreign Affairs magazine, 1/11/2018, passim.
[16] Israeli Plans for 250,000 Future Settlers in Golan Heights, site of International Middle East Media Center, 2/4/2019,
[17] Raya newspaper, Qatar, 14/2/2009,
[18] Alhayat newspaper, London, 11/5/2018,
[19] Amiram Barkat, “Israel Awards First Golan Oil Drilling License,” site of Globes, 20/2/2013,
[20] William Cubbison, “What Do Israelis Think About the Golan Heights?” site of The Israel Democracy Institute, 31/3/2019.
[21] Zvi Hauser and Isaac Zarfati, Recognition of Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, pp. 36–39.
[22] Trump’s Golan Heights announcement met with a shrug in the Arab world, site of, 22/3/2019,
[23] Jon Stone, “EU member states unanimously reject Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights, defying Trump and Netanyahu,” site of The Independent, 29/3/2019.
[24] EU States Unanimously Announce: We Do Not Recognize Israeli Sovereignty Over Golan Heights, site of Haaretz newspaper, 27/3/2019,
[25] Trump’s Golan Heights Declaration: What Does It Mean and What Happens Now, Haaretz, 22/3/2019,
[26] E.U. Move to Label Israeli Settlement Goods Strains Ties, site of The New York Times newspaper, 11/11/2015,
[27] Bryant Harris, “House Democrats skeptical of Trump’s Golan Heights shake up,” site of Al-Monitor, 26/3/2019,
[28] Zvi Hauser and Isaac Zarfati, Recognition of Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, p. 35.
It is noted that chapter nine (Part I) bets on the decentralizing and splitting up Syria, and tries to complement the previous pages of the study by comparing the “duration of Syrian sovereignty” over the Golan and the duration of the Israeli sovereignty. The study has found out that Syria controlled the Golan since 1946 (the end of the French mandate) until 1967, while Israel controlled it since 1967, which means more than double the Syrian duration, see Chapter “The Split-up of Syria: a Geo-strategic Security Interest and a Reflection of the Ethnic Reality.”
The study legally justifies the Israeli control of the Golan by stating that it was the result of a “defensive” war in order to eliminate the Arab threat, and not an “offensive” war. Meaning that the demise of the Arab threat and the holding of a comprehensive peace is the condition that makes the Golan issue negotiable, a matter that the study considers unavailable at the moment.
[29] This thinking is based on a comparative study by Prof. Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University Law School. See the comparison of the Golan Heights with other regions: Eylon Aslan-Levy, “The Case for Israeli Sovereignty in the Golan Heights,” The Tower magazine, issue 38, May 2016,
[30] United States of America: After 50 Years, the Golan Heights IS Israel,, 26/3/2019.
[31] Strategic Assessment (110): The Prospects of the US Deal of the Century, site of al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, February 2019,

The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 21/5/2019

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