The Golan heights or the Syrian Golan is a rocky-plateau in south western Syria. It is internationally recognized as Syrian territory but has been controlled by Israel since 1967.
Area – 1800 sq km
Altitude – 3300 feet
Is situated between south Lebanon, south Syria, and northern Israel. Elevations range from 6,500 feet (2,000 m) in the north, to below sea level along the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) and the Yarmuk River in the south.
It was captured during the 1967 Six-Day war which resulted in the establishment of the purple line. Most of the Syrian inhabitants abandoned the area during the 1967 war. Golan Heights are of great political and strategic significance.
Syria tried to regain control of the Golan Heights during the 1973 Middle East war. The surprise attack by the Syrian Armed Forces was thwarted by Israeli forces who incurred heavy losses. Israel and Syria signed armistice in 1974. A UN peace force has been in place since 1974.
In 1981, Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights, a move that was condemned internationally. Now, there are more than 40 Israeli settlements with almost 30,000 settlers. Some 20,000 Jewish settlers of Syria also live in the region.
Strategic Importance of the Golan Heights
The heights are situated a strategic location geographically. Both northern Israel and Southern Syria surround the heights which provide a vantage point to track the military movements in both the countries. Damascus, the capital of Syria is about 60 KM north of the heights.
Syrian military regularly shelled northern Israel from 1948 to 1967 when Syria was in control of Golan Heights. The topography provides a natural buffer against any military thrust form Syria.
Rainwater from Golan Heights provides for 1/3rd of Israel’s water supply. The land is also very fertile and suitable for cultivation.
1999-2000 – U.S tried to bring both the countries on the same page but the negotiations broke down on access to the sea of Galilee. Israel offered to withdraw to pre-1948 border whereas Syrian demanded the 1967 frontier to be re-established. No common ground was found and hence the talks came to a halt.
2007 – It was reported that Israel offered to concede the land in exchange for a comprehensive peace agreement and severing of Syria’s ties with Iran and militant groups in the region.
2009 – In March 2009, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed that indirect talks had failed after Israel did not commit to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Later he said that the return of the entire Golan Heights was “non-negotiable,” it would remain “fully Arab,” and would be returned to Syria. Syria’s ties with Iran and Hezbollah turned out to be the stumbling blocks once again.
The Syrian Civil war which broke out in 2011 has put paid to any negotiation talks which was one of the main foreign policy goals of the current U.S President Barrack Obama. This has led to even more complications in solving this issue.