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War for Water on the Golan Heights

by Open-Publishing - Sunday 26 August 2007

Water Wars and conflicts International

QUNEITRA, Syrian Golan Heights— Trucks of every size were queued up for miles and some hadn’t budged in days. At the end of the line, drivers resigned to a long, hot ordeal set up camp waiting for inspections.

At the border checkpoint on the Beirut-Damascus highway, each industrial vehicle must be searched in compliance with UN Resolution 1701 to insure it isn’t smuggling missiles or weapons into Lebanon. Israel and the US repeatedly charge Syria with rearming Hezbollah, and if true it could provide a casus belli for the next Lebanon war.

I discussed the possibility of an attack with a retired Syrian Army General who had served as a Captain in the 1967 Six-Day War when the Israelis defeated the Syrians, and seized the Golan Heights. "I am afraid there will be more trouble here and in the middle east," he sighs.

And the fate of the Golan? "There is an Israeli military buildup now on the Golan Heights... and negotiating at the United Nations has never gotten the Arabs anything..."

In the Golan’s graveyard city of Quneitra, a town destroyed by Israel during the conflict, an eery sound whistles through the burnt skeletons of a hospital, a Christian church and a mosque. The main street feels haunted, with shop facades blown off, baring the insides of what may once have been a pharmacy, a bakery or a beauty parlor. Home after home is punched flat to the ground, one with trellised front gate still creaking in the wind.

Across a dirt road and a barbed wire fence is a minefield, and beyond that the green farms of Israel. This strategic plateau rises 500 yards above the Sea of Galilee, abutting the Jordan River Valley near the West Bank and the Lebanese Sheba’a Farms.

But the real strategic asset is water. The Golan is the catchment basin for the Sea of Galilee which provides 30% of Israel’s supply. In 2006, Israel began building its 20 Golan reservoir- the Quneitra Reservoir- just yards from the ruins of the town. "To be without water will be worse than any war," the Syrian General told me. "Millions could die. It is not land but water that will cause wars in the future."

On Israel’s Mount Hermon, which overlooks Quneitra and as far as Damascus, the preparations for such a war are well under way. Despite the heat, IDF soldiers are drilling in full combat gear and restocking military bases with equipment for the first time in over a decade. In the southern Negev desert, IDF commandos recently staged mock raids on a Syrian village.

Israeli intelligence predicts war within the next 24 months and security officials claim the army is on its highest alert since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. According to Israeli military expert Aaron Klein, the country’s top ministers held a "very sensitive" closed-door meeting on August 8 to finalize plans.

The Syrians too are getting ready, building so-called "pitas", a type of flat bunker that blends into the landscape, resembling unleavened bread. The Syrian government is purchasing advanced military hardware and anti-aircraft technology from Russia. Israel and the US also accuse China of supplying Syria with C-802 missiles- the same model used by Hezbollah to puncture an Israeli navy ship during last summer’s war.

Learning from history, the Syrians are training their own guerrilla teams to wage Hezbollah-style ambushes, with the help of up to 15,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Syria.

Ironically, Great Britain, France and American-allied Arab states led by the US all urged Israel to attack Syria as an extension of the 2006 war on Hezbollah. Israel wisely refused. While these instigator allies live safely oceans away, Israel could be left vulnerable to constant future retaliation from contiguous nations inflamed by US war-making.

At the Syrian Consulate in New York, I spoke with Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Bashar Ja’afari about US policy, and Bush’s professed "Crusade for Democracy". Ja’afari warned that spillover from another war in the region would dangerously impact everyone. "We have to deal with this American elephant in the china shop... The midde east is a very fragile area."

Israelis themselves echo the view. On July 31, the Golan Peace With Syria movement headed by former Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel urged a resistant President Bush to allow peace negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. "For the past year we have heard voices that we have never heard before from Damascus... We believe such talks could remove the threat of missiles that are currently flowing from Iran into Syria by the thousands and may soon land on our heads," he told Yedioth Ahronoth.

But will Bush learn from history? At the foot of Mount Hermon overlooking both the Syrian and Israeli sides of the Golan Heights is an Ayyubid fortress, the Nimrod Castle, used to expel the Crusaders from Damascus in 1291. Crusaders who didn’t leave were beheaded, and their bones flogged..