In recent weeks, the legal status of the Golan Heights – Syrian territory annexed by Israel in 1981 but recognized as occupied by the world community – has come under renewed focus. Republicans in both chambers of Congress have introduced bills endorsing Israeli control. A State Department human rights report this month referred to the Golan as “occupied” rather than “controlled” for the first time. One Republican senator, Lindsay Graham, even visited the Golan in what looked like an endorsement of Israel’s annexation. Many supporters of these moves paint them as a blow to the Assad regime and Iran.
As supporters of the Syrian revolution who have sounded the alarm on Iranian expansion for years, we disagree. The Assad regime currently faces several challenges, but the recent focus on the Golan risks playing into its hands. Despite conquering several opposition areas last year, Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies are struggling to consolidate control. Protests continue in Daraa, the birthplace of the revolution, while anti-Assad sentiment simmers beneath the surface in nearby Sweida.
Even in loyalist areas, poor economic conditions are fuelling discontent. These conditions are the result of Assad’s destruction of infrastructure through air raids and sieges of civilian areas, which forced Syria’s brightest minds to flee while his government’s corruption strangles remaining economic opportunities. For years, Assad propaganda told loyalists that conditions would improve once Western and Gulf-backed “terrorists” were defeated. Now that Assad has regained military control, these communities are starting to see through the mirage.
These factors could become a real threat to Assad, but the focus on the Golan is the wrong strategy. Throwing attention onto the Golan now will gift Assad with a new bogeyman to shore up support among loyalists. In the low-information environment that prevails in loyalist areas due to media restrictions, it matters little that recent moves are highly symbolic and have little practical import; Assad’s propaganda is already shifting gears to present American sanctions on his inner circle as the cause of the economic crisis. The US government’s new focus on the Golan will make this lie more believable.
Iranian expansion efforts will also get a boost. Iran constantly claims, both to Syrians and to the world, that its intervention against the Syrian revolution is ultimately for the sake of fighting Israel. The prospect of Israeli control over the Golan will therefore create new incentives and a political cover for Iran to expand its existing dangerous activities in Syria, including the construction of missile bases, most recently in Safita close to the Lebanese border, and its planned rail line to glue together its “land bridge” through the Syrian Desert.
American efforts to change the status of the Golan will therefore only galvanize Iran and do little to ameliorate Iranian expansion.
A better way to fight both Iran and Assad while mobilizing global and regional support is to create a safe zone in southern Syria with backing from the United Nations General Assembly, based on the legal principle of a global “Responsibility to Protect” civilians. Some 670,000 Syrian refugees now reside in Jordan, which faces mounting economic strains as a result. Like Jordan and Lebanon, the UN seeks a formula for safe refugee returns, and many refugees themselves want to go home. The problem is that they cannot return to their homes while Assad and Iran-backed militias hold sway.
Assad regime security services are liable to hunt down returning refugees, either to arrest them for prior opposition activities or to forcibly conscript them. Iran also wants the refugees to stay away, and has deployed population displacement as a core strategy in the greater Homs and Damascus regions to consolidate control. Russia has failed to fundamentally disrupt this strategy, as evidenced by Israeli revelations last week of a new clandestine Hezbollah unit in southwest Syria. International assistance is direly needed to help Syrian refugees return safely.
Syrian refugees, after all, have a fundamental right to return safely to their homes, without fear of security force harassment. A safe zone would help fulfill these rights while stabilizing neighboring states and providing a new avenue to rebuild Syria without feeding into Iranian expansion or Assad's crony corruption. The large-scale return of refugees to a southern safe zone would also frustrate Iranian plans to alter the demographics in that part of Syria. This would be a major defeat for Iran and Assad, one far more concrete and lasting than symbolic measures over the Golan.
With Assad seemingly entrenched in power, it is easy to give up hope on a broader solution and look toward piecemeal or symbolic victories. American opponents of Iran and Assad would do better to seek concrete and durable means to contain Iranian expansion and benefit the Syrian people.
This article was co-written by Shlomo Bolts, who is a Policy and Advocacy Officer at the Syrian-American Council (SAC). Bassam Barabandi is a native of Deir Azzour, Syria. He has worked in the diplomatic civil service of the Syrian government for 14 years. He was the first secretary at the Embassy of Syria in Washington DC, the head of political affairs at the Syrian Embassy in Beijing, China, and held a post at the Syrian Government’s UN mission in New York City. Barabandi left the Syrian Embassy in Washington in the summer of 2013 and co-founded PDC. He tweets @BassamPDC.