Israel’s Return of Golan Heights a ‘Sacred Cause’ for Damascus


When this city was alive, young men flirted and girls gossiped, shopkeepers prospered and children played pranks, peasants dreamed of independence and struggled to get ahead. Or at least this is the vision of Mohammed Malaz, a Syrian director whose critically acclaimed new film, “Al Leil” (“The Night”), recounts the Kuneitra that once was.

Nothing is left of that world.

Kuneitra today is a museum of destruction, its buildings now in broken concrete shards. They are a monument to Syria’s continued grievances with Israel over ownership of the water-rich Golan Heights and an apt symbol of a peace process that now seems in rubble.

Of all of Israel’s Arab neighbors, Syria’s position may be the most demonized and perhaps the least understood. It has been branded a supporter of terrorism, an enemy of peace, an implacable foe of the Jewish state.


But from this side of the border, where Syrians look up at the Israeli army guns that bear down on Damascus from the snow-capped heights of Mt. Hermon, Syrians see themselves not as aggressors but as victims--powerless to stop the occupation of some of their richest land, relegated to the back bench of the peace process and abandoned by American peace brokers.

Syria has made it clear that it is no longer committed to the destruction of Israel. The Syrians’ inability to compete militarily with Israel is now obvious, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was Damascus’ principal arms supplier. Syria needs peace and offers, in return, to put the final stamp on Israel’s secure existence in the Middle East.

But before Syria finally will make peace with Israel, it says it must get back what it believes it is due under international law and U.N. resolutions--the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.

“Syria insists on its own territories,” Information Minister Mohammed Salman said. “Any Syrian official who would give up an inch of land will be classified by history as a traitor.”

Egypt--when it made its breakthrough for peace with Israel--got back the Sinai, Syrians will tell you. Why shouldn’t Syria get back the Golan?

“Their self-esteem as leader of the Arab world requires that they get at least as good a deal as Egypt, a country they regard as their equals. They feel hard done that people don’t appreciate their position in the West,” said one Western diplomat in Damascus, the capital.


But prospects for such a deal seem slim.

Since the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has taken a hard line on retaining the Golan. Where the Israeli governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were willing to barter the Golan for peace, Netanyahu’s government has vowed to keep most, if not all, of it.

Negotiations have not taken place since a series of bus bombings in Israel last year prompted Israel to suspend talks that had been taking place under American auspices.

In an unusually detailed interview published in January by the Journal of Palestine Studies, Walid Moualem, the chief Syrian negotiator, could not hide his disappointment. After four years of discussions, good progress was being made in the peace negotiations, he said, until Peres upset everything with his call for early Israeli elections. If not for that, he said, a deal might have been reached by last summer.

For Syria, the most important accomplishment of the aborted negotiations was that Israel agreed to a full withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries, asserted Moualem, who is also Syria’s ambassador to Washington.

But if such a promise was made--Israel maintains that Peres government negotiators were talking hypothetically--it now has been negated by the election of Netanyahu, who, unlike his predecessor, deems the Golan “essential to the security of the state.”

“Retaining Israeli sovereignty will be the basis of any arrangements with Syria,” Netanyahu says.



Syrian President Hafez Assad has demanded that the negotiations pick up where they broke off. But Netanyahu insists on a fresh start, and that kind of talk infuriates the Syrians.

“Peace is our strategic option. We pursued peace, we stayed in the negotiations, we did not interrupt them, and we are ready to resume where we left off and on the basis that the Israelis recognize the commitments made by the previous governments,” Moualem said, adding of Netanyahu: “As long as he wants to negotiate on the basis of ‘peace for peace,’ he will find no Syrian willing to talk to him. . . . The Golan is our territory. It is a sacred cause for the Syrian people.”

For Syria it is not only the intrinsic value of the Golan--it is a precious source of water and a rich agricultural area that was home to 155,000 Syrians until the 1967 war--there is a psychological factor: All of what is now Israel, Jordan and Lebanon was once considered to be Syria until the territory was carved up by France and Britain after World War I.

Syrians do not want to see their country ever shrink again.

Kuneitra, for example, was the capital of the Golan governorate, two-thirds of which--or 463 or so square miles--is now under Israeli control.

Kuneitra was occupied by Israel from 1967 to 1974. Getting it back was the one victory Syria eked out in its failed attempt to recapture the Golan in its October 1973 war.

But before turning it over, under an agreement brokered by then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Israeli soldiers demolished virtually every building in the town.


The film “Al Leil,” however, recalls Kuneitra before it was ruined. Moviegoers see it through the eyes of a young man and his mother who return to his now-devastated birthplace.

“The director wanted to show that, along with destroying the Golan land, memories and people also were destroyed,” said Saad Kasem, editor of Syria’s Arts Magazine.

On a recent Friday, it was a case of life imitating art.


Haithan Daass, 31, decided to show visiting friends the house where he was born. In a country like Syria, where generations of families are deeply rooted to the same piece of land, such excursions can turn emotional. And at his family home, a few hundred yards from the frontier with the Israeli-occupied territories, Daass found himself weeping.

The home that he left while still an infant is nothing but a pile of smashed concrete and twisted steel rods, overgrown with weeds.

“They say they want peace for peace,’ Daass said of the Israelis. “How can we have any relationship with them at the same time that our land is occupied?”

Ever since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke Arab unity and made a separate peace with Israel in 1979, Assad has struggled to maintain a united front to wrest a comprehensive peace settlement that would require Israel to surrender Arab lands conquered in 1967.


Assad’s biographer, Patrick Seale, says the Syrian leader’s guiding aim was to keep Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians from striking separate deals that would weaken Syria’s cause. To his supporters, Assad’s stances were consistent and principled. Detractors, however, say Assad has been stubborn and inflexible.

He did, finally, agree to the U.S.-sponsored Madrid Conference in 1991, which promised a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement based on the principle of “land for peace.”

After Madrid, Jordan and Israel reached peace. And while the progress toward peace has been fitful between Israel and the Palestinians, the stall in the negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus has helped create a fin-de-regime gloom that pervades Syria.

No one knows how much time Assad has to resolve the issue. In fact, the biggest diplomatic guessing game in town is about the health of the 67-year-old leader and what will happen when he goes.

Portraits of Assad are everywhere in Syria, and many bear the inscription, “Our leader forever.”

He has, however, been gaunt and gray for years, had heart troubles in the early 1980s and dropped from view in early January, with the government later announcing that he had undergone prostate surgery. One story related by a diplomat is that Assad summoned his top generals just before going into the hospital to thank them for their years of loyalty.


But at a February news conference, he appeared relatively fit and in control. And Syrian officials go out of their way to assure visitors of Assad’s good health and to dismiss rumors that a question of succession is imminent.

Since Basil, Assad’s oldest son and heir apparent, died in an automobile accident three years ago, much speculation has focused on the Syrian leader’s second son, Bashar, 32, as a possible successor.

An ophthalmology student in Britain when his brother died, he was brought home and sent to tank commander school and is said to be building his own network of supporters in Syria.

Diplomats, however, believe that a more likely successor in the near term would come from among Assad’s longtime cronies, such as Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam or armed forces Chief of Staff Hikmat Chehabi.


It is hard to imagine Syria without Assad, who, as defense minister, seized power in 1970 to end a 25-year cycle of coups and counter-coups that had sapped the country.

Along with his Baath Arab socialism--a one-party governing system reminiscent of the Soviet model--he imposed order and unity. Although he is a member of the religious Alawite minority and has brutally repressed the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, Assad has retained his popularity in Syria and across the Arab world in part because of how he stands up to Israel and because he seems above corruption, diplomats say.


Although there have been signs of easing in recent years, including the freeing of more than 1,200 political prisoners, Syria remains totalitarian. Diplomats say its highest aim, even more than achieving peace, is preserving its grip.

And that may be why Syria is not in a greater hurry to negotiate for peace, one diplomat suggested, saying: “If you have open borders with Israel and no danger of attack, then there should be more democracy here.”

Syrians, however, insist that this time it is not they who are slowing things down, but rather the Israelis.

“One of the most wanted dreams of the early Israelis was that Arabs accept the existence of Israel in this area,” said Salman, the information minister. “This is the historical moment.”

Daniszewski was recently on assignment in Kuneitra.