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Russia Has Become an Unusual Broker in Golan Heights 2.0

A Syrian fighter jet was shot down Tuesday afternoon by the Israeli Air Force, which claimed the plane had penetrated Israel’s airspace near the Golan Heights. Syrian officials say the jet crashed in southwestern Syria, and was hit while engaged in raids in their airspace over an area known for ISIS activity.

Tensions are clearly running high and the incident [1]offers the most recent evidence that a new post-civil war phase of the Syrian conflict is well underway, with its center the disputed Golan Heights territory between the two countries.

This is the second time in a week that the Golan has pushed its way into the international news cycle. During the now-infamous joint press conference in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin made the case for a restoration of peaceful Israeli-Syrian relations [2] on the Golan plateau. “The south of Syria should be brought [into] full compliance with the treaty of 1974 about the separation of forces [between] Israel and Syria,” he said, adding, “this will bring peace to [the] Golan Heights and bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel,” while also ensuring the “security of the state of Israel.”

Amid the predictable hubbub over Russian spies, electoral meddling, and NATO, this seemed to come out of nowhere. So much so that the mainstream press, obsessed as they were with the more buzz-worthy details of the summit, dropped it immediately from their round-the-clock coverage.


But why this renewed interest in Golan Heights, and why did Putin and Trump feel compelled to add it to their most pressing items on the Helsinki to-do list?

The reason is that, in Syria, Humpty Dumpty is indeed coming back together again. Every day brings more evidence that the Assad regime is restoring an uneasy national authority over the width and breadth of the country, large segments of which have been outside state control since 2011. Last week, the Deraa and Quenetra regions—Syria’s southern frontier with Israel—became the latest of the territorial prizes won back by the regime with critical support from Russia. That’s your first clue.

As the defeat of Assad’s opponents progresses, the issue of this borderland between Israel and Syria must be sorted out, not because of the need to resume trade—which never existed—or to return refugees—none of whom were ever welcome in Israel—but, as Putin explained, to rehabilitate the uneasy peace that has kept Syria’s border mostly quiet for almost half a century. (Not surprisingly those aren’t the only motivations at play here. More on that in a bit.)

That is why the Helsinki resurrection of the UN-mandated status quo ante, with important support from Moscow and Washington and including de facto restrictions on the deployment of the “resistance axis” forces—Iran and Hezbollah opposite Israel—is so noteworthy.

Notwithstanding the fact that Israel and Syria are bitter enemies, Netanyahu and Assad agree [3] that as they plan for the future, they should look back to the 1974 Disengagement Agreement as the new old foundation for Syria’s postwar relations with Israel.

These understandings formalized the ceasefire that ended the October 1973 War and left Israel in control of a sliver of Syrian territory initially occupied during the June 1967 war [4]. The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), numbering close to 1,000, was created “to maintain the cease-fire and to see that it is scrupulously observed.”

For most of its 44-year history UNDOF has performed this task without incident. Whatever else they did, both Syria and Israel were at pains to honor the limitations along the frontier. Every six months, most recently in June, the UNSC has reauthorized its mission.

Since August 2014, however, the peacekeeping mission, and more broadly the set of understandings that underpin the system, has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. When the regime lost control of the border region to a motley assortment of opposition and jihadi factions, the UN monitoring system—from patrols to observation posts along the frontier—broke down almost completely. The inability of UNDOF to perform its mission reflected the anarchy that had engulfed all of Syria. Along the frontier it was every man for himself. Both Israel and Syria, not to mention an array of non-state actors battling the regime, regularly violated the terms of the 1974 agreement by moving prohibited forces and arms into the area of separation and the areas of limitation along the frontier. UNDOF, chased from its observation posts and consumed with its own protection from opposition forces, became a metaphor for the breakdown throughout the country and the dangerous vacuum created by the implosion of an agreement designed to prevent a general war between Israel and Syria.

The regime’s crushing of the opposition along the frontier these last weeks has forced the question of how to address postwar deployments, and more broadly of an Israel-Syria ceasefire regime, onto the international agenda. In consultations with Moscow, the Netanyahu government has declared its interest in reaffirming the 1974 agreement. For the first time in years Israeli statements declare that “[Israel] will continue to implement the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement that includes maintaining the buffer zone.”

In Moscow, Netanyahu noted that Israel had had no problem “with the Assad regime for 40 years,” and noted that “not one bullet was fired on the Golan Heights” in that time.

The resuscitation of the 1974 agreement is one facet of Israel’s postwar agenda. The other is a diplomatic offensive to obtain Washington’s recognition of its sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. In contrast to the era that ended with the war’s outbreak in 2011, the Netanyahu government sees no need to engage diplomatically with Damascus on the question of Israel’s withdrawal from the contested area, where more than 25,000 Israeli settlers (and an equal number of Syrians) live. At the very least, the Israeli effort to win a unilateral declaration of support from the Trump administration serves to preempt other efforts to establish a diplomatic agenda not of Israel’s making.

Assad, who has defied those who questioned the regime’s ability to defeat its enemies on the battlefield, supports the 1974 agreement as a pillar of the restoration of Syrian sovereign control over its borders. The force limitations in the agreement also have the indirect benefit of constraining efforts by Hezbollah or Iran to deploy in force opposite Israel.

Moscow has emerged as a critical player in waging war on the regime’s behalf and mediating and guaranteeing the emerging postwar system along the frontier. The ongoing Russian air campaign remains critical to Assad’s success and to the associated decision to keep Hezbollah and Iranian forces far away from the battle. Russian-sponsored “reconciliations” are a key factor in arranging the surrender of opposition forces. Putin has performed a key intermediary role in winning Israeli and Syrian support to reconstitute the peacekeeping system—including UNDOF and arms limitations restrictions in well-defined disengagement zones.

The new Russian role is not only diplomatic but operational. For the first time Russian “police” forces will deploy onto the Golan to guarantee the new system.

According to the Russian-sponsored agreement, the Syrian army’s Brigades 90 and 61 as well as the Russian police will deploy in the ceasefire line and the demilitarized area of separation zone—under Syrian civil authority according to the 1974 agreement.

The 1974 Agreement, however, made no mention of Russian (Soviet) forces on the Golan. Indeed, Washington and Jerusalem during the Cold War would have vehemently opposed such a suggestion. Today, however, is a new day. Washington has been all but sidelined in both the diplomatic and operational efforts to end the war and reconstitute the peace.

Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.     

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Russia Has Become an Unusual Broker in Golan Heights 2.0"

#1 Comment By Belle Meadean On July 26, 2018 @ 1:44 am

“Washington has been all but sidelined in both the diplomatic and operational efforts to end the war and reconstitute the peace.”

Hoorah! It’s about time. Let’s hope we’ll also be sidelined in the ridiculous “Israel/Palestine peace process”, which from the American perspective has been a pointless ripoff from the outset.

#2 Comment By Maz Man On July 26, 2018 @ 4:16 am

The Zionist entity will eventually have to retreat with the Zionist regime recognising that Iran will be staying in Syria. There is nothing that they can do about this. The American regime knows this as well.

#3 Comment By Richard R. Tryon On July 26, 2018 @ 11:10 am

Since the U.S. is reduced to only accepting the Putin plan to use the 1974 UN approach with Russian troops with Syrians on the N. side of the separation, it makes sense that the force on the S. side should be a part of NATO with Israel being more able than virtually any other NATO nation in Europe.

I wonder how much of the 2hr. translators time was needed to get this idea be understood correctly? Some Senators think they need to know?

#4 Comment By Michael Kenny On July 26, 2018 @ 11:30 am

The author’s usual “Putin has won” propaganda line. Essentailly, Putin has lost in Syria and is now irreversibly bogged down. The US can relaunch the war against him at any time, even after Trump has left office. Thus, Putin has turned, quite logically, to America’s “master”: Israel. He no doubt hopes that if he can ingratiate himself with Israel, the Israelis will tell the US to back off.

#5 Comment By T. Berke On July 26, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

Putin and Asad will never achieve peace and order if they allow the Iranians and their murderous proxy to stay in Syria. It is such an existential threat to Israel that they will never allow it. Who knows what will happen, but ISRAEL IS THERE TO STAY. if Iran wants war, it will not only destabilize the Middle East but The Who,e world will plunge into Armageddon. The anihilation en mass of Jews will not happen, ever again, without a fight. So all those who hope on this pages for the “Zionist entity” to disappear and retreat, eat straw. IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN. THE JEWS ARE AT THEIR LEGAL HOMELAND OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

#6 Comment By T. Berke On July 26, 2018 @ 12:23 pm

What do you want me to moderate? Pro Israel comment?

#7 Comment By b. On July 26, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

Israel and Turkey both are “rogue nations” with untrustworthy governments acting in bad faith. That Putin has been willing and able to advance and guide events is an illustration of both Russia’s limits and Putin’s pragmatism. For all the grandstanding, the US could learn a lot, and, along with its victims, would benefit from adopting a similar approach to the relations with other sovereign nations.

#8 Comment By Tom On July 26, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

It’s a gross misrepresentation to refer to the Golan as a “borderland”. It’s Syrian territory and internationally recognized as such.

#9 Comment By Ray Joseph Cormier On July 26, 2018 @ 3:13 pm

Micaiah the Jewish Prophet, had gonads down to his ankles figuratively speaking, speaking to the kings of Israel and Judea holding a Summit meeting to discuss going to War with Syria over the Golan Heights.
All 400 Prophets in Israel were unanimous telling the kings to go to war and God was with them to deliver victory.

Micaiah, the one dissenting voice among all the Prophets of Israel said to the 400 others and to the king’s face,
“Therefore, listen to the word of the Lord. I saw the Lord seated on His throne, and all the host of heaven were standing by Him on His right and on His left.
And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab so that he will go up and fall in Ramoth-Gilead?’ One said in this manner and another one said in that manner.
And a certain spirit came forth and stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him,’ and the Lord said to him ‘How?’
And he said, ‘I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’
And He said, ‘You will entice and you will prevail. Go forth and do so.’
And now, behold the Lord has placed a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, whereas the Lord spoke evil concerning you.”

The kings ignored the 1 and listened to the 400.
‘So said the king, “Place this one in prison, and feed him a scant amount of bread and a scant amount of water until I come back in peace.’ ”
Micaiah said: “If you will return in peace, the Lord did not speak to me.”
And he said, “All the nations listen.”

This one Day, one Scene in his Life is the only mention of Micaiah in the whole Bible. The king of Israel divested of his Royal robes and Chariot, entered the battle incognito and was killed.
I read it as the 1st Biblical reference to the idea/concept of “Speaking Truth to Power.”

Looking to that part of the World Today, History is still repeating itself these 2900 years later.

#10 Comment By a spencer On July 26, 2018 @ 9:57 pm

Its always fun when new people arrive!

T. Berke, as so often happens with one-and-dones (well, two and done in this instance, since s/he has already staked claim to the censorship angle) left out who is going to fight this tremendous war against the Shia. Freeloading haredis studying Talmud or American youth?

If our newest poster comes back, can we cut to the chase?

I’ll be accused of anti-semitism, like this crowd:

Also, though/as I’m a US taxpayer, I’ll be sternly scolded for my lack of appreciation.

#11 Comment By General Manager On July 27, 2018 @ 8:26 am

There is a small window for peace. If the presidents of the US and N.Korea can meet. Why not Israel and Syria? The reality of missile warfare is manifest. No one wins and a lot of people die. The cowards of Congress must stand up for their own country at some point? The bodies coming home from N. Korea are a stark reminder of war. If the neocons need to see action drop them into Tehran and let them sort things out. Not my friends and kin who have a desire not to die in some unexplained or undeclared war for a foreign power. .

#12 Comment By Anne (the other one) On July 27, 2018 @ 9:12 am


There are Jewish groups who not only oppose Zionism, but also do not recognize the State of Israel. The Messiah must return before the state of Israel can be created.

On the same basis, we should return American to the indigenous peoples who believe The Great Spirit gave them the land.

#13 Comment By TTT On July 27, 2018 @ 10:26 am

The Golan Heights have now been part of Israel for longer than they were ever part of a Syrian state. Neither the land nor the people, who have full voting rights, are under occupation. By now the world should have gotten used to Israel owning it. And they should stay used to it, since Israel is certainly never going to give it up to Iran, ISIS, or whoever else inherits the rubble of the failed state briefly known as “Syria.”

#14 Comment By Myron Hudson On July 27, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

“Washington has been all but sidelined in both the diplomatic and operational efforts to end the war and reconstitute the peace.”

Well, yes, and that just might be due to our efforts to start the war in the first place. If you want the fire put out, don’t call the arsonist.

Based on demographic trends in Israel since the 70s, the Russian-Israeli compact is either right on time or a bit later than expected.

#15 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 27, 2018 @ 4:07 pm

@ TTT (aka “the Hasbara King”):

United Nations Security Council resolution 497, adopted unanimously by the Council on 17 December 1981 [15 nations including the United States of America voted for the resolution, None voted against, None abstained], declared that the Israeli Golan Heights Law, which effectively annexed the Golan Heights, is “null and void and without international legal effect” and further calls on Israel to rescind its action.”


#16 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 27, 2018 @ 4:09 pm

U.N. Security Council Resolution 497 (1981):


#17 Comment By LM On July 27, 2018 @ 4:52 pm

Im glad Russia is in Syria. I don’t think the US is pushed out but I don’t think that its in our best interest to be there. I see our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan only insofar as it allows us to surround Iran.

The lack of Russia meant our allies could place enormous pressure (via money, lobbies, etc) on US Mideast policy and invading Iran. Russia provides a very convenient counterbalance to the demands of our allies. The US now has a response that its not a free agent to initiate a proxy war. The US must now consider response and retaliation from Russia. We are not going to risk war with Russia nor Russia risk war with the US unless there is a serious threat which is a margin that both the US and Russia have had practice for 70+ years. Russia will safeguard and restrain and stabilize Iran and Syria. The US will safeguard and restrain Israel and Saudi Arabia. Very similar to US allied with Western Europe and Russia allied with Eastern Europe during the cold war. There were proxy skirmishes but they were small enough to keep them from expanding into a larger conflict.

Of course Israel and Saudi Arabia hate this but it might actually work out in a manner that stabilizes the region.

#18 Comment By TTT On July 27, 2018 @ 7:13 pm

Kurt: and what difference has your precious UN proclamation made in the last 38 years? None, just like the rest of their cliquish virtue-signaling. You can file it right next to the constitution of Sealand.

And next time just put the (((echo marks))) around me, it’s obvious enough that’s where you’re headed.

#19 Comment By plowshares On July 29, 2018 @ 8:18 am

“By now the world should have gotten used to Israel owning it. And they should stay used to it, since Israel is certainly never going to give it up to Iran, ISIS, or whoever else inherits the rubble of the failed state briefly known as “Syria.””

That’s not entirely up to Israel, though, is it? After all, Israel exists at the pleasure of the US. It can push this way and that way, but ultimately Israel does whatever the fark we tell it to do. If we tell it to give the Golan to Syria, that’s what Israel’s gonna do. Because there’s nothing else it can do.

#20 Comment By BraveNewWorld On July 29, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

>”For most of its 44-year history UNDOF has performed this task without incident. Whatever else they did, both Syria and Israel were at pains to honor the limitations along the frontier.”

What a load of bunk. Not only has Israel shelled the UNDOF base but has been carrying out near daily bombing raids on Syria while UNDOF pretends not to see. Israel has built military bases in the Golan heights with out a peep out of UNDOF. UDDOF also helped lead the Syrian police into an ISIS ambush.

When Trump starts the war with Iran it will trigger the great Middle East war the US has been seeking for so long and that will lead to Israel losing the Golan Heights, the Palestinian territories and the Sheeba Farms. The Jews from Manhattan and all the other privileged places they have come from will flee in droves once Israel starts being attacked for real.

#21 Comment By What Can Be Done On July 30, 2018 @ 6:27 am

“If we tell it to give the Golan to Syria, that’s what Israel’s gonna do. Because there’s nothing else it can do.”

Actually, it “can” do quite a bit more. It can meddle in US politics to get what it wants. It has meddled in our politics longer and more successfully than Russia ever did. If you don’t believe me, just ask the thousands of American soldiers who were killed in the Middle East while our Israeli “allies” sat by and did nothing.