By Sarah N. Stern
Because of creeping Iranian entrenchment on Israel’s northern border with Syria on the Golan Heights, two weeks ago the Israel Defense Forces were forced to shut down the “Mazor Ladach” Field Hospital. The clinic had treated approximately 6,800 casualties of the brutal seven-year Syria civil war as part of Israel’s Operation Good Neighbor.
The first losers here are, of course, the Syrian people in need of medical care.
Israel had also been providing sorely needed medical equipment, baby formula, food and fuel to the Syrian refugees amassed along Israel’s border. The proximity of more than 100,000 Iranian-backed troops as far south as Quneitra, which is perilously close to Israeli territory, makes the delivery of these life sustaining materials even more treacherous.
Now Hezzbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have become increasingly entrenched in the area, making this region — which had been relatively stable for 45 years — a potential line of confrontation. This constitutes just one more chapter in the rapidly expanding book of Iran’s pernicious influence in the Middle East. It aims to create an uninterrupted land bridge stretching from Tehran through Beirut and Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea.
Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights creates an important roadblock in that land bridge.
The Golan Heights is about 690 square miles that was captured by Israel in its defensive war of 1967 and successfully retained in its defensive war of 1973 from attacking Syrian forces. Since 1974, when the United Nations created the Separation of Forces Agreement, the Golan Heights has remained mostly peaceful.
U.N. Disengagement Observation Forces have overseen the 80-kilometer buffer zone between the sides. However, they have been occasionally attacked by Jabhat al Nassra, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. Therefore, the 1,000-man observation force, tellingly, prefers to remain on the Israeli side.
The Golan Heights has served as the demarcation line between the chaotic, feuding forces of radical Islam and the liberal, western values of the State of Israel. It creates the definitive dividing line between the authoritarian rule of Islamists and a vibrant, thriving democracy.
The Golan affords Israel a topographical vantage point for defensive and intelligence strategy from which its forces can peer directly into Damascus and Beirut. It affords Israel a defensive shield stretching to Tiberius. That is why the IDF referred to the Golan Heights as “the eyes of the nation.”
In 1981, the Israeli government voted to extend Israeli law over the Golan Heights.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to request that he use his influence to remove Iranian troops from Syria. However, although Moscow has offered assurances, the Russians have already demonstrated that they are unwilling to do anything to remove Iranian forces. Iran’s troops and Hezzbollah forces have been deeply intermingled with Syrian army forces, and have even been given Syrian military uniforms to conceal their activities.
There are no surprises here. The Syrian regime has been kept on life support through Putin’s Russia and Iran. Russia is only concerned about flexing its power on the world stage and sees the failed state of Syria as an opportunity to do so. And Iran is on a march to establish its own Shiite caliphate.
Earlier this summer, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, repeated his exhortation that “Israel is a cancerous tumor that must be eliminated.” And the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Solomei, said, “I am awaiting orders to eradicate the evil regime,” and that “Israel has no strategic depth and therefore this can be easily achieved.”
The inherent instability of Syria has created fertile territory for Russia and Iran, as well as for a whole scorpion pit of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nussra, Hezzbollah and the Revolutionary Guards — and many permutations — to dig in.
But Israel’s Golan Heights border presence offers the United States valuable insight into these pernicious forces. It has been a regional force of stability for 45 years and offers a protective shield for all of us.
As long as the Golan Heights is perceived as being “in play” as part of the lexicon of “occupied territories,” the illusion that it might someday be captured by Syrian or Iranian forces is perpetuated, which, in turn, perpetuates a potential state of war.
The simplest way to put an end to this dangerous illusion as well as to put an end to the voracious Iranian appetite is for the United States to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. That would send a strong, clear and unequivocal message to America’s foes in the region without putting a single boot on the ground.
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy center in Washington, D.C.