BEIRUT, March 22 (Reuters) – The Syrian government vowed to recover the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as its allies and enemies alike condemned U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday for moving to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the territory seized in war.
Trump’s statement on Thursday marked a dramatic shift in U.S. policy over the status of a disputed area that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East conflict and annexed in 1981 – a move not recognized internationally.
Against this backdrop of hostility towards the U.S. move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Beirut after visting Israel on Friday. He is expected to pile pressure on the government to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.
The declaration is the latest in a series of moves that have fuelled anger among Israel’s Arab enemies and U.S.-allied Arabs.
It follows the U.S. recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a decision that also drew international criticism as the disputed city’s status remains at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad with forces in Syria, said Trump’s comments risked seriously destabilising the region and expressed hope the statement was just declaratory.
Iran, Assad’s main regional ally and which also has forces in Syria, condemned the statement as illegal and unacceptable.
Turkey, a U.S.-allied state and an adversary of Damascus, also criticised the move, saying it had brought the Middle East to the edge of a new crisis and the legitimisation of the occupation of the Golan Heights could not be allowed.
Damascus said the Golan Heights would remain “Syrian, Arab” and Trump had shown contempt for international law.
“The Syrian nation is more determined to liberate this precious piece of Syrian national land through all available means,” the Syrian government said.
Though the Golan Heights had been calm for decades, the frontier has reemerged as a flashpoint for regional tensions during the Syrian war. Last May, Israel accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of launching a rocket salvo into its territory from the Syrian side of the frontier.
Israel, which has mounted numerous air strikes against what it has called Iran-backed targets in Syria, has demanded Russia keep forces allied to Tehran away from the frontier.
The Syrian side of the frontier was held by rebel forces for years until pro-government forces recovered it in July.
POMPEO TO FLAG HEZBOLLAH CONCERNS
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said: “we cannot allow the legitimisation of the occupation of the Golan Heights”.
The Arab League, which suspended Syria in 2011 after the start of its civil war, said Trump’s comment paved “the way for official American recognition” of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and said it “completely beyond international law”.
Trump’s statement has given a boost to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the middle of his re-election campaign. Netanyahu has praised Trump for “making history” with the statement.
In Lebanon, Pompeo is expected to flag U.S. concerns about Hezbollah’s growing role in government: the group has three ministers in government and together with its allies controls more than 70 of parliament’s 128 seats.
The United States is a major donor to the Lebanese army but its allies, including the Sunni Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, have been weakened as Iran’s role has deepened through Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and Saudi influence has retreated.
Washington has reintroduced sanctions on Iran and imposed new financial sanctions on Hezbollah which Lebanon’s Hezbollah-aligned president, Michel Aoun, said on Thursday were hurting all Lebanese.
(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo/Tom Perry in Beirut, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Yousef Saba in Cairo, Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Darren Schuettler and Raissa Kasolowsky and Samia Nakhoul;)