Where Is the Golan Heights? An Inside Look At the Latest Front in Bashar Al-Assad's War

The Gaza Strip, Kashmir, the Falklands. These are all historically disputed territories that have a lot of ink devoted to the fights over them, in spite of their small size. The Golan Heights is another place that deserves attention, now more than ever thanks to its strategic importance in the Syrian civil war and Bashar Al-Assad's long and tense relationship with Israel.

The Golan Heights is a swath of land on the Israel-Syria border that provides one-third of Israel's water and is a vantage point for the country to monitor the nearby civil war – Damascus and southern Syria are visible from the highest point. There are around 20,000 Israelis and around the same number of Syrians living in the area, which Israel seized from Syria at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Now, Bashar al-Assad is demanding it back as part of any peace agreement, perhaps moving his attention away from the civil war in his country and focusing on his neighbors to the east.

Meanwhile, Syrians and other Arabs who are loyal to Assad's regime are amassing on the border forming "popular resistance" groups with the aim of fighting Israel to gain control of Golan Heights once again. In the past two weeks, there have been threats of attacks and the communities on both sides of the Golan Heights border are preparing themselves for whatever may come next. 

“There is clear popular pressure to open a new front of resistance in the Golan,” Assad said.

And there's another complication to this increasingly threatening picture for the residents of this region. The European Union may terminate the United Nations Peacekeeping mission that has been in Golan Heights for years, which would likely result in an increase in military movement from both Israel and Syria. The end of the UN mission is largely because the two-year arms embargo on Syria is about to expire. Britain has an effective veto on its renewal and wants the option to sell weapons to Syria, which is threatening the current precarious situation between the two countries in this specific stretch of land.

Assad claims that his weapons will come from Russia, however, including S-300 anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles. These have not yet arrived – to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's credit, who insisted on Monday that they will not arrive until next year – but it seems that Syria can still depend on Moscow for weapons, at least for now. That relationship may preclude any reliance on Britain for arms deals for the near future, but that may not stop violence in Golan Heights. 

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured his cabinet that Israel would not ignore the possible attacks in Golan Heights. “While we have no interest in being party to the conflicts around us, we are committed to prevent threats to Israel’s security, and we have a clear policy of responding to attempted attacks against our territory,” Netanyahu said.

Indeed, just last week "hundreds of [Israeli] soldiers and tanks" arrived in Golan Heights as part of a military drill, following what Syria claims were Israeli air strikes early last month.

Israel may not want to get involved in Syria's civil war, but it seems that a combination of factors is leading toward a conflict in Golan Heights, a region that has been a historical territorial conflict between the two countries for decades – one which neither Assad nor Netanyahu is willing to give up.