Girls play near a sign at Mount Bental, an observation post on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, overlooking the Syrian side of the Kuneitra crossing.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
President Bashar Assad’s decision to shoot protesters in 2011, sparking the civil war that continues to ravage his country, “solidified Israel’s grip” on the Golan Heights, a former top Syrian expert at the State Department wrote on Thursday.
In a blistering critique of US President Barack Obama’s Syrian policy titled “I got Syria so wrong,” Fred Hof – former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s special representative on Syria – wrote in Politico that in early 2011 it seemed possible to pull Syria out of Iran’s orbit by getting Israel to give up the Golan Heights.
“Much of my State Department time during the two years preceding Syria’s undoing [that began in 2011] was thus spent shuttling back and forth between Damascus and Jerusalem, trying to build a foundation for a treaty of peace that would separate Syria from Iran and Hezbollah on the issue of Israel,” he wrote.
“Peace between Israel and Syria would require Damascus to cut all military ties to Hezbollah. It would require Syria to stop facilitating Iran’s support to Hezbollah. It would set the stage for a Lebanon-Israel peace that would further marginalize Lebanon’s ‘murder incorporated’ [Hezbollah],” he wrote.
Hof wrote that Assad told him in February 2011 that he “would sever all anti-Israel relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and abstain from all behavior posing threats to the State of Israel, provided all land lost by Syria to Israel in the 1967 war – all of it – was returned.”
Hof said that he had in-depth conversations with Assad on the matter, and he “did not equivocate,” and said that he had told the Iranians that getting the Golan Heights and “pieces of the Jordan River Valley” was a “matter of paramount Syrian national interest.”
“He knew the price that would have to be paid to retrieve the real estate. He implied that Iran was OK with it. He said very directly he would pay the price in return for a treaty recovering everything,” Hof recalled.
According to Hof, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “interested” in the deal, and that although he was “not at all eager to return real estate to Syria,” he found “fascinating” the idea of “prying Syria” out of Iran’s hands.
“Although there were still details to define about the meaning of ‘all’ in the context of the real estate to be returned, Netanyahu, too, knew the price that would ultimately have to be paid to achieve what he wanted.”
Two months later, after Assad fired on peaceful protesters in the southern city of Dera sparking the civil war, Hof said the deal was “off the table.
“Before the shooting began the United States and Israel were willing to assume Assad had sufficient standing within Syria to sign a peace treaty and – with American-Israeli safeguards in place – make good on his security commitments before taking title to demilitarized territories,” he wrote. “But when he decided to try to shoot his way out of a challenge that he and his first lady could have resolved personally, peacefully and honorably, it was clear he could no longer speak for Syria on matters of war and peace.”