Golan Heights: a quiet front but major peace hurdle

There is already peace and quiet on the 1,200- square-kilometre strategic plateau that separates Syria from Israel. The last time the Golan Heights was the scene of hostilities between the two neighbours was in 1973.

In a war orchestrated with Egypt, Syria tried but failed to regain the Golan, which Israel occupied in the six-day war of 1967 and annexed in 1981. ( dpa )

But the plateau lapsed back into a lasting period of quiet after both countries signed an armistice in 1974.

The strategic importance of this area has made it a constant source of friction since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1949. The heights have become a subject of protracted secret and public negotiations between Israel and Syria, the last of which were launched on Wednesday in Turkey.

"The Golan is not subject for negotiations," said Emad Fawzy al-Shuaiby, head of the Damascus-based centre of strategic studies and data.

With the capture of the Golan in June 1967, Israel seized the high point on Mount Hermon, which in only 2,220 metres from Syria. The Syrians found themselves vulnerable to an Israeli land attack since the heights form a critical natural defence against Israel.

The Golan also contains important water resources. It is a fertile land producing oranges, grapes and other fruit.

To Syria, Israeli occupation meant the flight of many of the Syrian population of the Golan. In 1967, about 130,000 people lived in 139 villages compared with a few thousands currently living there, according to Syrian estimates.

Syria regards the around 20,000 Jewish settlers who moved to the Golan as illegal intruders.

For all these reasons, restoring the Golan Heights has become an inalienable principle in Syrian foreign policy and has been a major obstacle for Middle East negotiators who hope to build a comprehensive, lasting peace in the region.

The collapse in 2000 of various forms of negotiations under US auspices, which went on for a almost a decade, deepened mistrust between Syria and Israel.

But contact has never really stopped ever since, including secret meetings, which reportedly took place in Europe between 2004 and 2006. The meetings, which were denied by both sides, reached so- called understandings for a potential peace agreement.

Among the understandings were an Israeli agreement to withdraw to the pre-June 5, 1967 boundaries, continued Israeli control over the use of the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret and a Syrian pledge to end its support for the Lebanese fundamentalist Hezbollah group.

Syria's ties with Hezbollah and Iran have been, and will remain, a thorny issue in any negotiations with Israel. The Jewish state and the US hope that through a peace deal they can pull Syria away from the Iranian fold.

But Syria says its ties with Iran are unbreakable and even believes that what it perceives as Hezbollah's victory over Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war has strengthened Damascus' bargaining position in any future negotiations.

"The Syrians seem to be getting the terms they always wanted since all Israeli conditions (for peace talks) are no longer valid, such as the demand that Syria sever ties with Hezbollah, Iran and the Palestinian factions." Al-Shuaiby said.

"Syrians are fully prepared when they go into negotiations. They are strengthened by a historic 2006 victory over Israel and a change in the balance of power in Lebanon this month (May)," the Syrian analyst said.

The balance of power, which al-Shuaiby refers to, was created by Hezbollah's show of its military muscles against its rivals last week in Lebanon, leading to agreement with the pro-Western government that gives the fundamentalist group veto power in a new cabinet of national unity.

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