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Syria vows to recover Golan, US shift draws criticism (Update)

FILE PHOTO: Signs pointing out distances to different cities, on Mount Bental, an observation post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing, Israel May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

The Syrian government vowed to recover the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as its allies and enemies alike condemned US 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 US 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 US move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Beirut on Friday after visiting Israel. He is expected to raise pressure on the government to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Trump’s declaration is the latest US step to fuel anger in the region, both in states that are hostile to Israel and others that have relations with it and are allied to the United States.

It follows the US recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a decision that also drew international criticism as the city’s disputed status remains at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad with forces in Syria, said Trump’s comments risked seriously destabilising the region, and it voiced 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 US-allied state and an adversary of Damascus, said the statement 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.

In a tweet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for his gesture “at a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel”. It could help Netanyahu in the midst of a tough re-election battle, analysts said.

Damascus said on Friday the Golan 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.

After remaining calm for decades since a 1974 armistice monitored by UN peacekeepers,Golan re-emerged 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 truce line.

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 boundary.

The Syrian side was held by rebel forces for years until pro-government forces recovered it in July.

POMPEO TO FLAG HEZBOLLAH CONCERNS

The European Union said its position on the status of the Golan Heights was unchanged. “The European Union, in line with international law, does not recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, including the Golan Heights and does not consider them to be part of Israel’s territory,” an EU spokeswoman said.

The Arab League, which suspended Syria in 2011 after the start of its civil war, said Trump had paved “the way for official American recognition” of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and called this “completely beyond international law”.

Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, said it still considers the Golan as occupied Syrian territory.

Israel says Syria’s civil war has reaffirmed the need to keep the plateau – coveted for its water resources and fertile soil – as a buffer zone between Israeli towns and the instability of its neighbour.

In Lebanon, Pompeo is expected to flag US concerns about Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s growing role in government: the group has three cabinet ministers 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 Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, have been weakened as Iran’s role has deepened through Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and Saudi influence has receded.

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.

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