An Israeli soldier stands on an observation post in the Golan Heights. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
5.6 trillion dollars, 6,731 dead Americans, and little to show for it. Given that Congress is currently working on Department of Defense funding for 2019, now is an appropriate time to remember the staggering costs imposed by the U.S. defense policies of the past 17 years. Americans are fatigued after nearly two decades of wandering around the Middle East playing terrorist whack-a-mole; polls indicate an overwhelming majority of the American public oppose the endless wars in the Middle East.
Despite the prevailing American distaste for military intervention in the Middle East, however, public support for Israel is at a 20 year high, with 74% of Americans holding a “favorable” view of our tiny stalwart ally. Given the inherent tension between support for Israel and aversion to military action in the Middle East, the United States must find ways to support Israel without engaging in military conflict. One soft power approach to consider would be supporting Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights.
The Golan Heights, a small, mountainous chunk of territory on the Syrian-Israeli border, was seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. Since then, Israel has controlled the Golan Heights through self-proclaimed ownership, although that claim has not been internationally acknowledged. As recently as two weeks ago, Israeli officials have pressured the United States to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the region.
The United States should formally recognize Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights as it presents the perfect opportunity to support America’s only democratic ally in the Middle East. Furthermore, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the territory has broader implications that go beyond merely supporting an ally.
The Qods Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards units on parade. Photo: Reuters
By supporting Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, the United States will also send a clear message to three dangerous regimes wielding influence in the Middle East: Russia, Iran, and Syria. During the ongoing civil war in his country, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has received Iranian and Russian support for his forces in the region. Most recently, Iranian forces have been assisting Assad’s military offensive as he moves through Syria towards the Israeli border and the Golan Heights. Israel is rightfully concerned about this offensive, especially given the recent skirmishes along the border between Iranian-backed Syrian forces and the Israeli Defense Forces.
U.S. support for Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights would communicate to Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies that the territory is not up for grabs. This would serve as a strong deterrent against future military escalation along the Syrian-Israeli border as Assad will be far less likely to invade the Golan Heights knowing that the United States supports Israel’s claim to the territory. Even if Assad tried to invade the Golan Heights after it is recognized as Israeli territory, he would risk doing so without support from Iran and Russia, who would themselves have to consider the immense economic costs that have historically come with provoking the U.S. and Israel.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin greet each other at a May 2018 meeting in Sochi. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik
Given the American desire to avoid military intervention in the Middle East, this soft power approach would simultaneously keep the United States out of a full-blown military conflict yet allow it to support a vital ally. Beyond that, it strongly deters Bashar al-Assad from his escalating military campaign and signals to Russia and Iran that they do not have free rein to call the shots in the region.
The United States should pursue more tactical defense policies than those of the last 17 years. Supporting Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights satisfies the interests of the American public, the United States, and Israel, and will limit the escalation of military conflict between a staunch American ally and a ruthless dictator. This is neither pacifism nor warmongering. It’s simply smart policy.