Hardly anyone noticed. The Trump administration quietly changed America’s long-held position on Syria’s strategic Golan Heights while attention was focused on the raucous political carnival in Washington. Though barely noticed, the policy change had enormous importance and will lead the United States into a lot of future Mideast misery.
The Golan Heights is a volcanic plateau that abuts Syria, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. The plateau rises abruptly from the plain of Galilee, providing dominance of the entire region. To the north, Mt Hermon rises to over 9,000 feet (2,814 meters); the plateau slopes down at its southern extremity.
Golan provides the headwaters of the Jordan River and 15-20 percent of Israel’s water from its snow-capped north. Israeli artillery atop Golan can hit Damascus and its airport. Electronic intelligence systems on Golan look down onto southern Syria, intercepting all communications and detecting troop movements.
The plateau is quite fascinating. I have walked most of the Israeli-held side, observing dug-in tanks, artillery, and small forts surrounded by anti-tank ditches. Burned out wrecks of Syrian tanks and armor litter the countryside. I’ve also walked the Syrian side and explored the wrecked Syrian town of Kuneitra that was leveled by the Israelis in 1967.
Israel seized Golan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and annexed the plateau in 1981. Almost all of Golan’s Arab population was driven out by the Israelis. The UN and US demanded that Israel return Golan to its rightful owner, Syria. After 1981, Israel moved over 20,000 settlers onto Golan to cement its control of the strategic heights and its water sources.
During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Syrian forces came close to pushing Israeli forces off Golan. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. For still unknown reasons, the Syrian armored offensive abruptly halted just as it reached the western edge of the plateau overlooking northern Israel.
My understanding is that Soviet recon satellites saw Israel deploying its nuclear bombs and missiles from their cave shelters. Moscow warned ally Syria that it risked nuclear attack by Israel unless its forces halted their advance so the Syrian offensive stopped on the verge of tactical success. This allowed Israel to concentrate enough reserve armored divisions to successfully counter-attack and drive Syria from the heights.