With Israel’s continued efforts to source economical oil from the region and an ongoing civil war in nearby Syria, the Golan Heights is once again in the spotlight, leaving the international community in a renewed debate over the acknowledgment of Israel’s territorial claims and their geopolitical impact.
Following the resolution of a permit issue, Afek Oil & Gas, a subsidiary of American company Genie Energy, has resumed efforts to verify whether or not commercially viable options for oil extraction exist within the Golan Heights region. These drillings are anything but routine, as years of conflict and contestation over the plateau – which was seized by Israel in 1967 – have lead to profound disagreement over the territory’s sovereignty.
As Afek works to uncover what could be a step towards energy independence for Israel, the Israeli leadership is lobbying the United States to change its historical position that the region belongs to Syria. They want the US to support Israel’s strategic interests in and claims to the Golan Heights, including the development of its natural resources. With the worsening situation in Syria and the need for Syrian rebel support, the United States and the rest of the international community have a delicate task ahead in dealing with the Golan Heights, however, it is likely that Israel will eventually have its way.
Background to the conflict
Strategically, the Golan Heights region is of vital importance to Israel as it sits directly between Syria and Israel, serving as a critical buffer zone between the rebel-run western border of Syria and Israel’s crucial water resource, the Sea of Galilee.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the area had been subjected to conflict as both Israel and Syria launched numerous offensives in the territory with Israel ultimately occupying it following the Six-Day War. Later, Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights from the neighboring country of Syria in 1981 when it extended Israeli law to the area.
The international community did not recognize Israel’s action and the United Nations Security Council put forth Resolution 242 which declared the Golan Heights as occupied territory, a designation that clearly condemned Israel’s actions and left the region’s sovereignty in Syrian hands, a position still held today by the international community, including the United States.
Given the divide that exists between Israeli leadership and the international community over control of the region, an ongoing Syrian civil war next door, and the aforementioned oil efforts, there is an unprecedented level of geopolitical complexity surrounding the Golan Heights and the issue of sovereignty. Russia’s involvement in the war, the ever-present Palestinian tension, and the precarious situation with Hezbollah, only adds to this complexity and affirms that the implications from any action involving the territory will be felt across a broad spectrum of countries and groups with interests in the region.
As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has continued to call on both the United States and the international community to reassess their views on the region. In essence, Israel’s leadership is looking for the global community to acknowledge Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights by leveraging the unstable conditions that have resulted from the civil war in Syria, citing the calming influence that Israel has brought to the region and the abolishment of anything remotely close to a working government in Syria as the justification for their claims. Israel has put forth the notion that this is an opportunity for the United States to halt the spread of violence in the region.
While the situation in Syria and with that United States’ position on the Golan Heights is undoubtedly evolving, the Obama administration has maintained that their current position – that it is ‘occupied territory’ by Israel – best serves their foreign policy interests in the broader region. A position based on maintaining the support of the Syrian rebels, who may view a U.S. acknowledgment on the Golan Heights as contrary to their views. In focusing on ensuring the support of the Syrian rebels over the concerns of the Israeli leadership, the Obama administration’s actions are a testament to the fragility of the situation in Syria and a sign that the United States is not yet comfortable with the progress made in the region.
What to expect?
Afek Oil & Gas’s list of advisors reads more like a shortlist of the next American President’s cabinet and includes former vice-president, Dick Cheney, former treasury secretary Larry Summers, former energy secretary Bill Richardson, and James Woolsey, a former CIA director. They will continue their efforts and, if successful, they will help create the momentum needed to advance Israel’s strategic agenda in the region by capitalizing on the close connections to Washington and the influence of its advisors.
For the short-term, as the outcome of the Syrian civil war remains unclear, the involvement of Russia and the need for the rebel support groups has pitted the interests of the United States against those of Israel, giving the US little to no incentive to expeditiously acknowledge Israel’s territorial claims in the Golan Heights region.
However, in the longer term, if the situation in Syria becomes calmer, instead of a bona fide acknowledgment by the international community we may simply see a continuation of the status quo: little is being done to oppose the actions or interests of Israel within the Golan Heights region, which in effect would lead to the eventual sourcing of oil by Afek.