Trump’s Golan is a megalomaniac’s own goal

(Syria defending against Israeli missiles attacking Damascus, January 2019)

The US President Donald Trump’s decree on March 26 granting official US recognition to Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights does not create any new fact on the ground. 

Trump’s motivations are fairly clear — boost Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospects in the April election where the newly-established right-center wing party, Blue and White Party, led by former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former General of Staff Benny Gantz, surpasses the Likud in the survey poll. (See Aaron David Miller’s column in CNN, ‘Why Trump and Netanyahu desperately need each other’.)

However, no matter Netanyahu’s political future, the far-reaching global implications of Trump’s move cannot be underestimated. The blatant defiance of international law on sovereign borders sets a bad precedent — be it Kashmir or Crimea or Cyprus. 

By ignoring the United Nations charter which vows to refrain from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” Trump has opened a Pandora’s box, if one were to look at the dustbin of modern history. 

Historians widely accept that the Austro-Hungarian empire’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1909 turned out to be the prelude to the First World War. Again, when Hitler began to break the Treaty of Versailles in the 1930s and to carry out the series of territorial annexations, the League of Nations was powerless to stop him. When the League failed, the only way to stop Hitler was a Second World War. 

Without doubt, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the need was keenly felt to amend the Geneva Conventions and adopt a founding charter of the United Nations with the aim of outlawing such annexations and rejecting threats to the territorial integrity of existing states. 

Secondly, the US has blithely overlooked that the decision on Golan comes at a very sensitive juncture when the Middle East is caught in the throes of a momentous contestation of political authority and territoriality due to very complex historical and political processes. The fact of the matter is that the Middle East system itself is endangered. 

Referring to the informal Sykes-Picot agreement sketched out during the First World War regarding the future of the Ottoman territories, David Fromkin had written in his classic study ‘A peace to end all peace? The fall of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the modern Middle East’ (2009) that the period 1914–22 was one ‘in which Middle East countries and frontiers were fabricated in Europe.’ The sources of regional instability since then through the past century — consolidation of authoritarianism, the rise of sectarianism and the intractability of conflict (long before the Arab Spring of 2011) — and the relentless assault of internal and external challenges— wars, civil and interstate, and multiple interventions — have buffeted the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the states of the region. 

So far, events didn’t cause permanent fragmentation or major border redrawing, though some conflicts remain unresolved, notably the longstanding Israel–Palestine dispute. This is what makes March 25, 2019 a defining moment in the Middle East’s history and politics. 

The regional states are simply stunned by Trump’s decision on Golan. Saudi Arabia lost no time to issue, earlier today, an exceptionally strong condemnation of the US decision: 

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia expresses its firm rejection and condemnation of the declaration issued by the United States Administration to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Height. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia affirms its firm and principled position on the Golan Height that it is an occupied Syrian Arab land in accordance with relevant international resolutions and that attempts to impose a fait accompli do not change facts.” 

“The Declaration of the United States Administration is a clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of the international law, as well as relevant international resolutions, including Security Council resolutions No. 242 (1967) and No. 497 (1981), and it will have great negative effects on the peace process in the Middle East, security and stability of the region.”

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia calls on all parties to respect the resolutions of the international legitimacy and the Charter of the United Nations.” 

It is not easy for Riyadh to take such a stance robustly backing Damascus so soon after a bitterly fought conflict in Syria, but, evidently, it is also in Saudi self-interest to unequivocally condemn Trump’s move. Saudi Arabia too has unsettled borders. Again, the Arab League has followed suit. So has Turkey. Iran of course voiced very strong criticism. 

If Jordan, one of the most ‘artificial’ states, and Lebanon, which does not fully control all of its territory or borders have survived despite multiple competing groups and sites of authority, it has been because powerful external actors (including the US) wish it. As for the borders of Syria, Iraq, the Egyptian Sinai or Yemen, they all remain highly volatile and contested at present. Simply put, despite longstanding and region-wide claims of imposition and artificiality, amid ongoing challenges, the borders that have somehow survived in the Middle East so far are coming under great pressure as new fault lines have appeared.

Put differently, Trump may have scored an ‘own goal’ with the Golan announcement. Without doubt, this audacious step will weaken his pet Iran strategy. Tehran’s stance that it is the US, and not Iran, that violates international law becomes even more difficult to contradict. On the whole, to quote the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, “Trump’s Golan announcement could squander decades of US diplomacy and make it very difficult for Washington to restore its influence and credibility in the region.” 

Any American peace plan for the Middle East will now be a tougher sell than at anytime — especially on Trump’s watch. Clearly, the US’ pretext for intervention in Syria — namely, need to end Iran’s military presence — becomes hopelessly untenable. There will be widespread sympathy in the Arab world for Syria. 

A compelling justification now becomes available for Iran and Hezbollah’s continued presence in Syria. Most important, Trump’s Golan move virtually cements the Syrian-Iranian alliance built on the bedrock of ‘resistance’ to the US and Israel.

(Israeli tanks guarding occupied Golan Heights, May 2018)

Paradoxically, Israel’s own security faces new daunting challenges from Syria, as a new ‘resistance front’ takes shape. Developing strong deterrence capability against Israel becomes the number one priority for Syria. 

Looking beyond the Middle East, the global implications are even more difficult to anticipate. India has an unresolved border problem with China, while Pakistan refuses to recognise Jammu & Kashmir as an integral part of India. Afghanistan does not recognise the Durand Line. And China does not accept any hurdle in the way of unification of Taiwan. Russia’s annexation of Crimea lacks legitimacy while Abkhazia and South Ossetia have no takers in the international community. 

These are some of the telling examples to show that Trump’s Golan move, undermining the sacrosanct principle of international law of respect for borders and the territorial integrity of UN member states, is tantamount to stirring a hornet’s nest that doesn’t need stirring.