Some foreign policy decisions are finalized after years of diligent study, intense analysis, and painstaking negotiation. Others are decided after monumental summits or at the conclusion of devastating wars. These days, it seems like many of the most impactful foreign policy decisions are finalized in under 280 characters on Twitter. Late last month, the president tweeted out a major and seemingly unprepared policy shift in the recognition of an area in the Middle East known as the Golan Heights. This isn’t the first major recognition of territory or sovereignty delivered via social media, but it may be one of the most impactful to date. This week, we’ll discuss the implications of the status of the Golan Heights.
So what are the Golan Heights? This is a small region in the Middle East at the intersection of the countries of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, the emerging nation of Syria was granted control over this region. But during the various Arab-Israeli wars (which have been summarized here) Israel occupied the region after 1967. This area is strategically important due in large part to its elevation. The Golan Heights stand up to 9,000 feet above sea level and have a commanding presence over several nearby areas (including heavily populated sections of Israel and the Syrian capital of Damascus). In short, whoever controls the Golan Heights has a much easier time projecting military power into neighboring regions. Israel annexed and directly controls the majority of the region, but the remaining section of the territory remains controlled by a neutral peacekeeping force.
But if Israel already asserts direct control over the majority of the region, what does it matter if the United States recognizes this? Well, the move itself creates several complicating factors. First, there is the reality that small portions of the Syrian population still reside within some sections of the Golan Heights. And it is highly unlikely that the Syrian government would give up this territory without a fight. This also runs afoul of one of the foundational agreements of the post-World War II era. One of the most important aspects of the United Nations charter is that it declares that territorial acquisitions via warfare are illegitimate. This was intended to prevent additional global wars of conquest, and the unilateral recognition of territory taken via warfare undermines this established norm. This may not seem like a big deal now, but the United States has relied on this established norm to push back against actions like Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Without powerful nations backing this norm, more nations may begin to believe that military occupation can lead to territorial gains. Finally, recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel complicates more than just the American relationship with Syria. Neighboring Lebanon also claims a small area of the Golan Heights known as Shebaa Farms. It appears this area would be included in the territory recognized as part of Israel, which is likely to further push Lebanon away from cooperation with the United States.
All that said, the reality of the situation is that Israel controls a large portion of this region and has no intention of returning it to Syria. In fact, Israel has continued its campaign of settlement building similar to that which is being used in Jerusalem and parts of the Palestinian West Bank. But recognition of this region could be done in a more strategic way. For instance, recognition could have been granted as a condition in a final peace agreement. Currently, both nations reside in a state of war with one another. Some of Israel’s other neighbors such as Jordan and Egypt have already made peace, and the issue of the Golan Heights could be used as a way to move towards a permanent peace agreement. Another option would be to use formal recognition of the Golan Heights as a punishment for Syria’s terrible actions during the Syrian Civil War. At the very least, this could send a strong signal to other nations that the indiscriminate killing of civilians would not go unpunished. Instead, recognition of the region appears to have been given away, ostensibly at the request of Israel (and conveniently just prior to the upcoming Israeli elections). It appears that, much like the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, no grand deal was made in exchange for this major concession.
These may seem like trivial matters. It may seem that one nation recognizing the claims of another seems more like a schoolyard conflict than an international geopolitical crisis. But the formal recognition of nations and territory matters. Other nations make major policy decisions based on these recognitions. It can influence who trades with whom, which nations join military alliances, and ultimately which nations go to war with each other. In a world in which perception influences reality, the recognition of a nation’s territorial claims (or lack thereof) can determine the course of world events. If one nation can invade another and ultimately claim dominion over those lands, what mechanism exists to stop this from happening when it is convenient? If we all recognize the right of rule by conquest, are we any better off as a society than we were less than 100 years ago?