On March 25, President Donald Trump signed an official proclamation recognising the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli land. This provocative decision further highlighted the extent to which this administration has aligned its Middle East foreign policy with Israel’s government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the backdrop of Trump recognising a “united Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital, pulling the US out of the Iranian nuclear accord, and eliminating US funding for UNRWA.
Most analysts understood Trump’s move as largely serving the domestic political agendas of both Trump, who must shore up Evangelical support to win re-election next year, and Netanyahu, who faces elections next month. Yet in the process of being so focused on domestic variables, Trump’s move has further isolated Washington from the norms of global diplomacy and international law.
Many of America’s allies such as the United Kingdom, France, and Arab Gulf states along with its foes such as Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have voiced their opposition to the US administration on this issue.
No other UN member-state has ever recognised the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, occupied by the Jewish State during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, and annexed in 1981.
The Turkish response
Unsurprisingly, Turkey has taken a strong position against Trump’s decision to recognise the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights much like Ankara did after Trump announced that the US would recognise Jerusalem, and no longer Tel Aviv, as the Israeli capital.
On March 25, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry released a statement declaring that Trump’s decision is “completely null and void” for Ankara and all others in the international community that respects Syria’s territorial integrity.
On March 22, one day after Trump tweeted his support for recognising the Golan Heights as Israeli land, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a speech before foreign ministers at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting in Istanbul.
“Trump's unfortunate statement has brought the region to the brink of a new crisis,” declared Erdogan. “Turkey and the OIC cannot be expected to remain silent on such a sensitive issue and submit to a fait accompli. We can never allow legitimization of occupation.”
While campaigning in Konya, Turkey’s president told a crowd that, “We will pursue the Golan Heights until the end.”
The same day of Trump’s Golan Heights tweet, Ankara’s top diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu took to social media to voice opposition too. “Attempts by the US to legitimize Israel’s actions against international law will only lead to more violence and pain in the region… Turkey supports Syria's territorial integrity.”
Later Cavusoglu spoke in Antalya province about Trump giving a “gift to Netanyahu who is in trouble before the election.”
Turkey’s opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), also condemned the US’ recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. On March 26, the CHP’s deputy leader Unal Cevikoz stated: “We are concerned that this decision that violates international law, Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity can trigger new regional crises and further extend the war in Syria.”
Ankara’s next move
What remains to be seen is how Ankara will react to Trump’s Golan Heights proclamation. For the Turkish leadership, both the territorial integrity of Turkey as well as Syria are sensitive issues. Fears of northern Syria becoming a de facto independent state in the region will likely inform Ankara’s firm position against any plans to carve up Syria.
Yet beyond questions of how Turkey views ongoing efforts in northern Syria to split and divide the country along ethnic or linguistic lines, Ankara’s staunch opposition to Trump’s Golan Heights decision is also understandable within the context of the Astana process.
Having joined Russia and Iran in organising Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan, officials from Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran have agreed that any realistic resolution to the Syrian civil war must consider United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which stresses the need for Syria’s territorial integrity to remain, as its foundation.
In all probability, Turkey, Russia, and Iran will point to the US position vis-a-vis the occupied Golan Heights as further reason to leave the US out of all future diplomatic efforts among global and regional actors aiming to solve Syria’s eight-year crisis.
That said, it is important to avoid exaggerating how directly Trump’s decision regarding the Israeli-occupied Syrian land will impact the future of Syria. While the move was highly symbolic, it will not result in a change of the US military posture in the region, nor was there reason to realistically expect the Syrian Arab Army to pose any credible military challenge to Israel’s control of the land, especially before the end of the country’s civil war.
Washington was already far from being in any position to drive political change on the ground in Syria while the Turkey-Russia-Iran trio shapes realities in the war-torn country despite those three states’ conflicting interests in Syria. To that point, it is highly doubtful that Trump’s Golan Heights decision will fundamentally alter the Astana process much at all.
Ultimately, the talks held by Turkey, Russia, and Iran have been focused primarily on defeating Syria-based terrorist organisations and other shared objectives, not including bringing an end to Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.
Further straining the Turkey-US alliance
None of this is to deny that Trump’s decision on the Golan Heights can negatively impact the state of bilateral affairs between Turkey and the US. Against the backdrop of Washington’s support for the terrorist PKK-linked forces in Syria, the American government’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey, sanctions on Iran, the S400 Russian missiles, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attendance at the meeting between Israel, Greece and Cyprus earlier this month, the Trump administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights will likely become yet another issue of contest in Ankara and Washington’s already tense relationship.
Unquestionably, with Trump at the helm, US foreign policy in the Middle East has become increasingly aggressive, unpredictable, unprincipled, short-sighted, and transactional. The administration’s disregard for the importance of international law as the basis of decades-old efforts to resolve both the conflict between Israel and Palestinians as well as the one between Israel and Syria has further eroded any notion of the US playing an impartial role in the region’s “peace process”.
For Turkey, this direction which US foreign policy has taken since Trump entered the Oval Office has further pushed Ankara eastward toward Russia and Iran while increasing Turkey’s concerns about the impact of Trump’s foreign policy decision making that Ankara sees as destabilising the Middle East.
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