by Hugh Fitzgerald
In 1967, President Johnson asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to study what territorial adjustments would be necessary to meet Israel’s minimum defense needs. They duly presented their military assessment of what, for Israel, would constitute “secure and defensible borders.” Here is a small excerpt, about the Golan, contained in their Memorandum:
The timing is perfect
MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSEHere follows the paragraph about the Golan Heights:
Subject: Middle East Boundaries
Reference is made to your memorandum, dated 19 June 1967, subjects as above, which requested the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, without regard to political factors, on the minimum territory, in addition to that held on 4 June 1967, Israel might be justified in retaining in order to permit a more effective defense against possible conventional Arab attack and terrorist raids.
From a strictly military point of view, Israel would require the retention of some captured territory in order to provide militarily defensible borders.Determination of territory to be retained should be based on accepted tactical principles such as control of commanding terrain, use of natural obstacles, elimination of enemy-held salients, and provision of defense in-depth for important facilities and installations. More detailed discussions of the key border areas mentioned in the reference are contained in the Appendix hereto. In summary, the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding these areas are as follows:
Syrian Territory Contiguous to Israel. Israel is particularly sensitive to the prevalence of terrorist raids and border incidents in this area. The presently occupied territory, the high ground running generally north-south on a line with Qunaitra about 15 miles inside the Syrian border, would give Israel control of the terrain which Syria has used effectively in harrassing the border area.What the Trump Administration did in recognizing Israel’s claim to the Golan was not only based on a recognition of Israel’s legal, moral, and military claim to the area. It was also based on an understanding that Syria is now in the worst possible position militarily and politically to object to the Golan move. The time was right.
The Joint Chiefs believed, as a military matter, that Israel had to hold onto the “commanding terrain” of the Golan Heights.
By all the rules of post-war settlement that have been recognized for centuries, Israel has a right to hold onto the Golan (see above the discussion of the American West, the Alto Adige, Kaliningrad). By the very terms of Resolution 242, which envisaged Israel retaining some of the territory it won in the Six-Day War, based on its right to “secure and recognized boundaries,” Israel has a second, independent basis for claiming the Golan.
Militarily, Syria is completely on the ropes. Its army has been fighting a bloody civil war for eight years. About 200,000 soldiers and police fighting for Assad have been killed. Among the pro-government militias, many of whom before the civil war would have been members of the armed forces, 70,000 have been killed. As for the opposition forces, 175,000 have been killed who might once have served in the Syrian Army. In the civil war, then, Syria has lost 445,000 men on both sides. That does not count any of the foreign fighters. And the number of wounded must be at least twice that.
The loss of war materiel is also striking. In 2011, at the beginning of the civil war, Syria had 555 combat aircraft. By 2014, it had only 295 combat aircraft. By September 2018, by subtracting the number of aircraft known to have been lost (shot down, crashed, attacked while on the ground), Syria should now have less than 200 combat aircraft left, and smaller numbers, too, of combat helicopters. It has a total of 457 aircraft of all types — fighters, attack aircraft, transports, and trainers.
There is also a question of pilots. How many Syrian pilots have been killed ? How many pilots were among the five million Syrians who have fled the conflict and the country? At least several hundred are either dead or gone missing. There are many stories of Russian pilots flying Syrian Air Force aircraft, which testifies to the lack of Syrian personnel.
As to tanks and other armored vehicles, in the first two years of the civil war, from 2011 to 2013, the Syrian opposition managed to destroy, disable, or seize 1,800 T-55, T-62 and T-72 tanks plus BMP fighting vehicles exploded, burned, disabled or seized by rebels — with potentially thousands of crewmen also being killed, injured or captured. This loss amounted to 25% of the total number of tanks and other armored vehicles in the Syrian army. I cannot find online any information about tank losses since 2013, but if in the first two years of the civil war the SAA lost 25% of its tanks, it is reasonable to assume that in the six years since, at least another 25-50% of Syrian tanks have been destroyed, disabled, or seized. Some have no doubt been replaced by Iran — but how many?
The SAA (Syrian Arab Army) has been degraded both on the ground and in the air; pilots have been killed or fled; many tanks have been destroyed, many tank crews have been killed. And this means that Israelis need not worry about the Syrians lashing out at them because of the American decision to recognize the Golan as part of Israel.
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