Turkish president warns decision could trigger a new crisis

Syria, Russia and Iran condemn US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan

Trump’s Twitter announcement, reversing over 50 years of policy, said to catch both American and Israeli officials off-guard

Young members of the Druze community wave Syrian flags during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on October 6, 2018, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)
Young members of the Druze community wave Syrian flags during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on October 6, 2018, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

Syria and its allies Russia and Iran on Friday condemned US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which the Jewish state captured from its northern neighbor in the 1967 Six Day War.

Quoting an unnamed foreign ministry official, Syria’s official SANA news agency slammed the decision as “irresponsible” and a violation of United Nations resolutions concerning the territory’s status.

“Syria strongly condemns the irresponsible declaration of the American president, which again proves the US’s blind tendency in favor of the Zionist entity and its unreserved support for its aggression,” the official said. “The Syrian people remain committed to the liberation of the Golan Heights by all means at its disposal.”

The source added that Trump’s statement won’t change “the fact that the Golan was and will remain Arab and Syrian.”

The comments were Syria’s first reaction to Trump’s surprise Thursday announcement, which has been met with largely muted responses by the international community.

A mock road sign for Damascus, the capital of Syria, and a cutout of a soldier, are displayed at an old outpost in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria, May 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Russia, which has long been a key backer of Syria and is fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, condemned Trump’s declaration as a violation of UN decisions.

“Russia, as you know, takes a principled position on the issue of the Syrian Arab Republic’s ownership of the Golan Heights… Our assessment of the unlawful nature of Israel’s decision to extend its sovereignty to the Golan Heights remains unchanged, ” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quoted as saying by state-sponsored Sputnik News.

“Changing the status of the Golan Heights bypassing the Security Council is in direct violation of UN decisions,” Zakharova added.

Iran, another key ally of the Assad regime, said the move was illegal.

“This illegal and unacceptable recognition does not change the fact that it belongs to Syria,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said, according to Reuters.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the US announcement could throw the region into crisis.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sings his election song before delivering a speech at an election rally in Istanbul’s Kasimpasa district, on March 5, 2019 (Ozan KOSE / AFP)

“Yesterday US President Trump’s unfortunate statement about the Golan Heights brings the region to the edge of a new crisis,” Erdogan told an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul.

“We will never allow the occupation of Golan Heights to be made legitimate,” he added.

In signature fashion, Trump made the announcement on Twitter, reversing over 50 years of US policy since Israel’s capture of the strategic plateau from Syria.

Trump’s recognition caught officials in Israel and the United States off-guard, according to the McClatchy news agency.

“We all found out by tweet,” an Israeli official was quoted as saying. “We’ve been lobbying for this for a long time, but it was not the product of one phone call. There were hints, but we weren’t given advance notice.”

Another Israeli source told the news agency that Israeli leaders were informed of the decision shortly beforehand, as with Trump’s abrupt announcement in December that he would pull all US forces out of Syria.

According to the report, Trump’s Middle East peace negotiators and the State Department were also surprised by the move, with US officials having expected an announcement when Trump hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House next week.

Netanyahu appeared overjoyed while praising the decision in a press conference in Jerusalem Thursday alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who the New York Times noted “looked caught off-guard.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to his residence in Jerusalem on March 21, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool/AFP)

While the timing of Trump’s decision was unexpected, there were a number of hints at a coming US policy shift, including the State Department’s defining of the Golan Heights as “Israeli-controlled” instead of “Israeli-occupied” for the first time, in a human rights report released last week.

Trump’s tweet was not preceded by a policy review, according to McClatchy, and it was not clear if the US president would follow up the announcement with a more official recognition such as an executive order.

It was also unclear if Israel would respond with a move of its own, as it never formally annexed the Golan Heights despite having extended Israeli law to the territory in 1981, in a move never recognized internationally.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton visits the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, January 6, 2019. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Quoting unnamed White House officials, the news agency said Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton was a key force behind the move following his visit to Israel in January, seeing it as a signal the US remained committed to Israel in the wake of Trump’s announcement of the US troop pullout.

US Ambassador David Friedman also reportedly pushed for the recognition on the same grounds.

Israel in recent years has warned that its arch-enemy Iran is trying to establish a military presence in Syria that could threaten the Jewish state, and has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets there linked to Iran.

“It was an ask,” an Israeli official told McClatchy. “Because of the timing — it suddenly became a relevant issue about Iran.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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