Two weeks ago, Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights was back in the headlines for the first time since former US President Donald Trump’s 2019 recognition of Israel’s 1981 annexation of the strategic plateau. New US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to offer an understanding of the status quo as a necessity, commenting that: "As long as [dictator Bashar] Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself – all of these pose a significant security threat to Israel, and as a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation I think remains of real importance to Israel’s security."
Blinken went on to note that if the situation in Syria were to monumentally change, the Biden administration could engage both Israel and the Assad regime anew, albeit this scenario is too far off to even contemplate. In such a context though, it is useful to remember how we arrived at the border’s formal status quo.
In 1973, then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger choreographed a ceasefire that concluded the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The ceasefire between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic metamorphosed into the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement between the two foes. The Agreement was the epitome of conflict management and, in the decades that followed, Israel, Syria, and the supporting signatories, the United States, Russia (formally the Soviet Union), and the United Nations Security Council regarded the Agreement as a tool for a peace treaty.
Even as Israel and Syria battled each other in the Lebanese arena in 1982, the Agreement was generally upheld. During the 1990s and well into the 2000s both Damascus and Jerusalem complied with the Agreement, using it as an anchor in direct and indirect peace talks. The one critical exception occurred on 6 September 2007 when the Israeli Air Force (IAF) executed a covert military action against Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor. Israel only formally acknowledged the attack named “Operation Soft Melody” on 21 March 2018. The military action has never been officially raised as a violation by Syria or the other signatories, because the two countries were already working out a framework for the indirect peace negotiations between Bashar Al Assad and the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Between 2014 and July 2018, the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra almost brought about a scenario in which Syrian forces would be absent from the border with Israel. For its part, Israel faced different groups across the border with whom it had no ceasefire agreement. Since 2018 though, the momentum has swung Assad’s way. Supported by Iran and Russia, Assad regained control and ISIS gradually dissolved. Iran and Hezbollah have stepped into the vacuum.
Today, Syrian sovereignty has been hollowed out by a spectrum of combatants that comprises Iranian military forces, local and foreign militia. Syria is emerging from the decade-long multilayered conflict as a fragile protégé state, leaving the status quo of the frontier that has endured with relative stability for nearly 50 years in question.
The Devil You Know
Structured into the relations between Israel and the Assad Regime, the Agreement legitimizes the existing and evolving practices of the current covert and overt remote warfare between Israel and Iran in a fractured Syria. While the Agreement never fulfilled its original purpose of developing into a peace accord, its potential to do so remains, and the Agreement has been proven reliable. It has proven itself to be a useful risk management tool during the interstate conflict in Syria by helping to prevent a spillover into the Golan Heights.
As Assad gradually confronts the rigid economic sanctions imposed by the US and its new administration, as well as the normalization accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, he could be lured out of the cold. Although the chances of reestablishing a sovereign Syria are very slim, the existing legacy of the agreement holds. It might serve yet again as a pivot for future talks, and help add some legitimacy to a new Syrian entity in the eyes of the international community pushing for Arab-Israeli normalization.
Guy Cohen is an Innovation Scouting & Governments Affairs advisor based in Munich, Germany.