January/February 2000

Israeli Control of the Golan Remains Strategically Critical

DECISION BRIEF 6 January 2000

Publications of the Center for Security Policy No. 00-D 3

(Washington, D.C.): Today's Washington Post gives front-page treatment to a study released last month by the Tel Aviv University's Center for Strategic Studies under the headline: "A Fading View of the Golan; Heights No Longer Vital to Israeli Security, Analysts Say." In the old Communist phraseology, the promotion of such a revisionist view at this particular moment in time is "no accident, comrade."

After all, such pronouncements at present very much serve the interests of the Israeli government of Ehud Barak and those of the Clinton Administration. They are, after all, feverishly trying to reverse the national security strategy of the Jewish State and (i.e., the necessity of maintaining physical control of the Golan Heights) and eliminate one of its foundations (by surrendering all of the Golan to Syria).

The authors of the Jaffe study included what the Post describes as "half-dozen analysts from the Center including former top army officers." They conclude that the Golan has lost its strategic value to Israel primarily because of a rapid decline in the combat capability of the Syrian military. In the words of Shai Feldman, the Center's director, "The bottom line is that for now the region remains stable. There are no serious threats to Israel's security and survival."

This is, in fact, a highly debatable proposition. Other experts recognize that the Middle East is one of the last regions one would characterize as "stable." Certainly, threats to Israel's security and perhaps even its survival abide -- including, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, the Egyptian military build-up, hostile regimes in Iraq and Iran, etc. The United States may actually become obliged to improve the condition of the Syrian military as part of price Hafez Assad demands as his price for agreeing to accept Israel's surrender of the Golan Heights. It would be folly for Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights on the assumption that the historic strategic realities have disappeared and the end of history has arrived.

Those strategic realities were described authoritatively in a study published in Commentary magazine in 1994 prepared by the Center for Security Policy by eleven distinguished American security policy practitioners, five of them retired four-star flag officers -- including three former members of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Al Gray and Chiefs of Naval Operations Admirals Elmo Zumwalt and Carl Trost. The attached excerpts gainsay the findings of the Jaffe Center study and bear careful consideration by the Israeli people and their American friends. Particularly noteworthy was the study's observation that "Israel's [then-] current Chief-of-Staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, has recently reiterated that, even under conditions of peace, the IDF must remain deployed on the Golan."

The Bottom Line

That assessment of the strategic requirement for the Golan remains as valid today -- in the age of missiles and in presence of a relatively degraded Syrian military -- as it did when General Barak made it. Neither militarily unsound reasoning nor unfulfillable American security guarantees to Israel alter the fact that without the Golan Heights, the Jewish State will likely face a mortal threat to both its "security and survival."

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Excerpts from: U.S. Forces on the Golan Heights?

A Special Report Prepared for the Center for Security Policy by:

General John Foss (USA, Ret.), Commanding General U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command; formerly responsible for U.S. forces in the Sinai

General Al Gray (USMC, Ret.), Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps

Lieutenant General John Pustay (USAF, Ret.),Assistant to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; President, National Defense University

General Bernard Schriever (USAF, Ret.), Commander, U.S. Air Force Systems Command

Admiral Carl Trost (USN, Ret.), Chief of Naval Operations

Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. (USN, Ret.), Chief of Naval Operations

Douglas J. Feith, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Middle East specialist, National Security Council

Frank Gaffney, Jr., Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Policy); Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense

Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Policy)

Eugene Rostow, Director, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; Under Secretary of State (Political Affairs)

Henry S. Rowen, Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs); Chairman, National Intelligence Council, Central Intelligence Agency.
(Commentary - December 1994 Vol. 98, No. 6)

The Golan Heights

The Golan is a semi-mountainous escarpment of some 400 square miles, ranging in height from 400 to 3,000 feet. It rises steeply from the eastern and northern shores of the Sea of Galilee, runs the length of the Huleh Valley, and overlooks the coastal plains of the Galilee and northern Israel.

At the end of World War I, during the division of the defeated Ottoman Empire, the Golan Heights were included in the territory of British Mandate Palestine. In 1923 they were transferred to French Mandate Syria under a Franco-British agreement delineating the boundary between Mandate Syria and Mandate Palestine. After Israel declared independence in 1948 and defeated the Syrian and other Arab forces that invaded to destroy the new state, that boundary became the basis for the Syrian-Israeli armistice line negotiated in 1949.

For the next eighteen years, until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Syria used its position on the Heights to shell Israeli farms and settlements in the Galilee below and to attack Israeli water projects in the Huleh Valley. Syrians on the Golan attempted to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River, which would have severely curtailed Israel's water supply. Israel used military force to oppose the diversion.

Israeli soldiers captured the Heights in the Six Day War of 1967. Six years later, at the outbreak of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syria mounted a massive armored attack into the territory. In a costly stand, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) stopped the Syrian thrust across the Golan and then counter-attacked, driving a fifteen mile bulge into Syria. Israel later withdrew from this bulge, but stayed on the Heights. In December, 1981, Israel enacted legislation extending its civil law and administration to the Golan, replacing the military authority which had ruled there for 14 years.

Since 1967 and the subsequent attempt in 1973 to retake the Heights, Syria has used various means, including terrorism and diplomacy, to press Israel to relinquish the Golan. Successive Israeli governments, under both Labor and Likud, have characterized the Golan Heights as essential to Israeli security.

The Strategic Importance to Israel of the Golan Heights

First, holding the Heights gives Israel strategic depth. The Golan territory is roughly 10 miles by 40 miles. All of Israel, including the Golan and the West Bank, is only approximately 45 miles wide by 270 miles. (First-time visitors to Israel almost invariably remark on how small the country is.) Thus, in the north, the Golan Heights makes the territory under Israel's control nearly fifty percent wider than it would be otherwise. This buffer zone, this extension of territory where Israel faces its most formidable enemy, is an important military asset for Israel. This remains true even in the age of missile warfare. It bears noting that, in the summer of 1990, all of Kuwait's valuable assets were in easy reach of Iraq's forces, which took them quickly. But Saudi Arabia's key assets lay across wide stretches of desert, which made an Iraqi conquest far more difficult. Though Iraq had Scud missiles, Saudi Arabia's strategic depth spared it the fate of Kuwait.

Second, control of high ground on the Golan gives Israel direct line-of-sight surveillance and warning of threatening Syrian movements in the plains below or in south Lebanon. Early warning is important to a defense posture that relies, in the event of war, upon a thin line of active forces to hold while reserves mobilize to meet the kind of attacks that Syria's large and well-equipped standing army might mount.

Third, modern technology has by no means eliminated altogether the disadvantages of having to fight uphill, a reality acknowledged by military commanders everywhere. The operational planning of the U.S. military, for example, still places great emphasis on command of the high ground as a critical force multiplier.

Fourth, possession of the Golan puts the IDF within easy striking range of Damascus. This contributes to Israeli deterrence against Syria. If deterrence fails and war occurs again, Israel's Golan position enables it to mount spoiling attacks against likely staging areas. And its proximity to Damascus can help deter especially heinous actions -- for example, missile attacks on Israel's cities.

Fifth, the Golan highlands are a major watershed. In that arid region with its growing population increasing the demand for water, control of water resources can have strategic consequences. The significance of this point is often overlooked in military and political analyses, especially those not produced locally. Control of the Golan permits control of Lake Kinneret (the "Sea of Galilee") which supplies roughly thirty percent of Israel's consumption.

Control of the Golan watershed and the Kinneret basin will further increase in importance if Israel makes concessions regarding its other main source of water, the watersheds of the West Bank. Water sources there now satisfy more than thirty-three percent of Israel's needs. These are at issue in Israel's negotiations with the PLO.


One of the key security arrangements envisioned for a Syrian-Israeli agreement involving Israeli withdrawal on or from the Golan is demilitarization of the territory from which the Israeli forces are withdrawn. Some analysts expect Israel also to insist that additional Syrian land beyond that territory be demilitarized or made subject to force limitations, perhaps in return for Israel's agreement to limit its own forces on the Israeli side of the border.

IDF Reserve Major General Moshe Bar-Kochba has noted:

The Syrians are now able to shift the main body of their military force against Israel within one night. Demilitarization must be such that it does not allow them to marshall their forces so fast; that is, they must be removed to north of Damascus.

Other military officers sympathetic to the Rabin government's general diplomatic policy toward Syria have made similar arguments. According to Major General (Res.) Avigdor Ben Gal, "It is important that in reality a buffer zone emerge, without any armies, and this zone must include two elements -- the Golan Heights and all of South Syria." And Major General (Res.) Abraham Tamir, who had responsibility for designing the security arrangements for the Sinai in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, has called for

a buffer consisting of: a demilitarized Golan; the Horan [the area of Syria immediately to the east of the Golan Heights] in which there will not be more than a mechanized division; and South Syria, the Golan, and the Horan demilitarized from military aircraft and missiles.

Notwithstanding any demilitarization arrangement, it would be far easier for Syrian forces in a war to remilitarize the Golan from the plateau behind the Heights than for Israel to return from below. The Syrians could move two to three divisions unhindered into the Golan overnight from their staging area around Damascus, even if Syria accepted an additional 40 km demilitarized zone extending beyond the Heights. If Syria seized control of a demilitarized Golan, it would be difficult and costly for Israel to move armor up the Heights under fire. The IDF would have to fight its way up the steep, almost sheer cliffs that face the Israeli side.

Demilitarizing a large portion of south Syria beyond the Golan Heights would mitigate but not eliminate altogether the risks to Israel of withdrawal from the Golan. Demilitarization agreements between adversaries are inherently brittle. The history of Germany's reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 illustrates the point. Pledges by democratic states to respond promptly and forcefully to any violation of an arms control arrangement with a non-democratic state have often proven hollow when the time for action came. This was true for the Allies after World War I, for the United States during the Cold War and for Israel after signing the peace treaty with Egypt.

So, as desirable as the actual demilitarization of south Syria might be, Israel cannot be expected to rely heavily on a demilitarization accord. Ultimately, Israel's security depends not on a demilitarization arrangement that Syria may or may not respect indefinitely but on the IDF's ability to prevail over Syrian forces if Syria renews military hostilities -- and on the costs of such a victory.

While the Golan's most difficult and most elevated terrain faces Israel, the topography on the northern and eastern sides facing Syria also constitutes a defensible barrier to massed armored attack. During the 1973 Yom Kippur war, control of the Golan's rocky highlands enabled two brigades of the IDF to hold off an attack of over 1,000 Syrian tanks.

Israel's current Chief-of-Staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, has recently reiterated that, even under conditions of peace, the IDF must remain deployed on the Golan. Maj. Gen (Res.) Yossi Peled, the previous commander of the IDF Northern Command which has operational control of the Golan, warned in December, 1993 that an Israeli withdrawal from the Heights would constitute "national suicide." If Israel found itself at war again with Syria, General Peled doubted that Israel could ever retake the Golan as it did in the 1967 War, because of the changes since then in the balance of forces.

Strategic Depth in the Age of Missiles

Even in the missile age, land -- strategic depth -- still matters. The Syrians have missiles. But they are still investing heavily in their ground forces. Major General Uri Sagi, head of the IDF Intelligence Branch, noted in April 1993:

...In the conventional field, Syria has improved and is improving its tank fleet in a very impressive manner. If and when Syria will complete its procurement transactions that it has already signed, all of its armored divisions will be equipped with the latest model T-72 tanks. Today Syria has over 4,000 tanks and 300 self-propelled artillery tubes that provide it with an enhanced offensive capability in land battles.

Many Middle Eastern nations are working to acquire ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and many of these nations maintain a longstanding hostility toward Israel. Nevertheless, the principal threat to Israel's existence for the foreseeable future will remain the danger of a physical invasion and occupation by heavily armored forces.

Simply stated, even though missiles can fly over the highest terrain feature, including the Golan Heights, they do not negate the strategic significance of territorial depth. The military value of missiles depends on their accuracy -- on their ability to strike specific military targets. Inaccurate missiles like the Scuds used by Iraq in the Gulf War can terrorize large urban areas. But they are not reliable against military targets -- airfields, command and control centers, bridges -- where precision is required.

If, however, the Syrians -- by violating a demilitarization regime, for example -- were able to move heavy artillery up to the edge of the Golan escarpment overlooking the Galilee and northern Israel, they could use their relatively accurate artillery against military targets within a range of approximately 25 miles, depending on their ability to observe and correct fire. Artillery munitions, of which Syria has large quantities, are relatively inexpensive, especially compared to missiles. Destroying significant military targets within this range would be a matter, in essence, of firing enough rounds.

On the other hand, if Israeli control of the Golan ensures that Syrian artillery is confined to the plateau behind the Heights, few targets in Israel would be within range of the Syrian artillery. Syria could attempt to strike those targets with ballistic missiles, but then they would encounter the problem of inaccuracy, not to mention the prohibitive cost and limited number of weapons in inventory. Also, the United States and Israel both have programs to develop defenses against ballistic missiles. Given adequate resources, these programs may substantially limit the military effectiveness of offensive missiles. There are, however, no defenses available against artillery other than counter-fire to destroy the artillery pieces themselves, which is a task of great difficulty, especially in rugged terrain like that of the Golan Heights.

What is more, succeeding with missile attacks on distant military targets would be nearly impossible in part because the essential function of damage assessment would not be possible for Syrian missileers well behind the Golan. (Targeting and damage assessment abilities would, however, be enhanced if Syria gained access to high quality, real-time satellite imaging.) In short, possession of intermediate-range ballistic missiles does not give Syria a capability to fight Israel as effectively from behind the Golan Heights as it could from the Heights themselves.

Achieving military success in a war requires more than lobbing a few score (or even a few hundred) missiles of limited accuracy at soft targets. Iraq fired approximately forty Scuds at Israel in the Gulf War, killing fewer than ten civilians and no soldiers and achieving nothing of military significance. To win a war against Israel, Syria must move armor, infantry and artillery forward and down into Israeli proper, and then destroy Israeli forces on the ground. This was true in 1948, it was true in 1967 and 1973, and it remains true in today's Age of Missiles.

Land for Peace

Proponents of a Golan withdrawal commonly state that "peace is a better basis for security than territory." That assertion is essentially a political, not a military judgment. If a military officer, for example, makes this assertion, his opinion on the reliability of a peace treaty with the Assad regime carries no special weight because of his military status. No military expert in Israel (or anywhere else) argues that, in the event of war, Syrian possession of the Heights would not matter. The argument that "peace is better than territory" is valid only as long as there is peace. But if war were to break out again, no one can seriously suggest that Israel would be better off holding a treaty signed by Assad than holding the Golan Heights.

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