Syria: finding a way out through the Golan Heights

2015-10-04 01:37

Given the daily bombardment of televised images of desperate refugees fleeing Syria and other war-torn Middle Eastern nations, very few people remain unaware of the terrible conditions in these countries or unmoved by refugees’ plight. These images, especially the heartrending image of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, have evoked emotional responses worldwide. Subsequently, the pressure on governments to ‘do something’; be it to take a more active military role in the region or to allow more refugees to enter their countries; has increased. Notwithstanding the growing outpouring of public sympathy and reinvigorated diplomatic efforts to resolve these conflicts, none of the solutions mooted by members of the political establishment or civil society thus far is likely to be sustainable. In the Syrian case in particular, media reports and informed commentaries aver that any proposal that does not take account of the positions of the numerous warring factions by enlisting their participation and does not demarcate a path to a secular, prosperous and stable Syria can only provide temporary relief to refugees at best or risk antagonising those parties excluded from these deals at worst.

Stemming from this premise, in the following article it is argued that establishing a safe haven for refugees under the protection of an international peacekeeping force in that part of Syria that remains relatively peaceful; the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967 and was illegally annexed in 1981; with the consent of Israel and all Syrian factions may offer a way to end the Syrian Civil War and lay the foundation for a sustainable regional peace. Under this scheme, Israel would withdraw from this area in order for the United Nations to establish a safe haven for civilians fleeing the conflict. Full restoration of this territory to Syria would be conditional upon all parties respecting this enclave and entering negotiations towards a binding political settlement which would result in the formation of a representative Syrian government within a specified period. In the interim, an international peace-keeping force would be stationed there to protect refugees and secure the border with Israel. Note that this last stipulation does not preclude the possibility that a final peace agreement could make provision for this force, or part thereof, to be stationed there permanently.

This scheme is likely to bestow widespread benefits which could provide compelling grounds for support. Firstly, for the embattled citizens of Syria, establishing a safe haven in their homeland obviates the need to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean or be pilloried across half the continent of Europe. It also holds out the promise of an end to the violence that has engulfed their country for the past four years and a return to civilian life. This hope is likely to stymie the desire to migrate.

For beleaguered President Assad, this deal offers the opportunity to secure his legacy as the leader who initiated the process which resulted in the restoration of Syria’s territorial integrity, a longstanding Syrian foreign policy goal. This possibility is likely to serve as a powerful incentive to introduce the democratic reforms necessary to produce a political settlement before exiting the political scene, a precondition for many within Syria and the international community. These are supposedly also the ideals which sparked the uprising in the first place.

For Syria’s neighbours, alleviating the immediate refugee crisis would diminish a source of regional instability and reduce the burden on already over-stretched public resources whilst devising a long-term political solution would prevent Syria from becoming a failed state and haven for terrorists and extremists in future. This may persuade regional leaders to pressure their various local allies to enter into dialogue with the aim of reaching a political settlement.

For Israel, ending its occupation of the Golan Heights could pave the way to concluding a durable and lasting peace deal with Syria, the last of its neighbours in which it is in an official state of war. This would enable it to finally secure its international borders and could spur the normalisation of relations with the wider Muslim world. Perhaps of greater strategic value, complying with international law whilst contributing to this peace initiative would allow Israel to garner significant amounts of goodwill at a time when its expansionist policies in the West Bank and its actions in Gaza are causing its stature to diminish amongst the community of nations.

For the developed countries of the West, supporting this initiative could satisfy increasingly vocal domestic demands to act and quell militaristic impulses to escalate their involvement in this internecine conflict and thereby risk exacerbating the unfolding humanitarian crisis. In addition, stemming the tide of refugees streaming northward may also help calm the tensions that differences in popular attitudes and discordant national asylum and refugee policies are causing within the European Union.

Based on the preceding arguments, it is concluded that a proposal based on:

  1. Israel’s relinquishing control of the Golan Heights and
  2. the establishment of a safe haven for refugees there in return for
  3. security guarantees for Israel and
  4. a peace deal with a future representative Syrian government

is workable and could lay the basis for negotiations towards a comprehensive political settlement to end the Syrian Civil War. Ultimately, this is the only way to stop the bloodbath, a cruel consequence of which is the refugee crisis.

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