Assad: The Shebaa Farms Are Syrian, Whatever Hezbollah Claims
The Syrian dictator dismissed Hezbollah's entire basis for being a ‘Lebanese Resistance’ in unsuccessful negotiations over a decade ago. I know because I was there
Frederic C. Hof Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is Diplomat in Residence at Bard College. He served as ambassador and special adviser for transition in Syria under President Barack Obama
April 7, 2021 07:18 EST
One of the more memorable things I experienced during my attempt to mediate Syria-Israel peace a decade ago was listening to the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, explain to me why Hezbollah’s post-May 2000 justification for keeping its arms — its claim that Israel was still occupying Lebanese land in the “Shebaa Farms” and “Kfar Shuba Hills” — was false. His explanation was straightforward: The land in question was Syrian.
Al-Assad shared this startling revelation during a one-on-one meeting in his “Tishreen Palace” on Feb. 28, 2011. On the one hand, hearing this territorial claim — long since taken up by the government of Lebanon and verbally recognized by Syria — described as spurious surprised me not in the least. This I had known since the time of its invention in 2000. But what shocked me as I listened to al-Assad was his straightforwardness and his lack of hesitation in telling an American diplomat point-blank that the land in question — the entire basis for Hezbollah’s claimed status as the “Lebanese Resistance” — was not Lebanese; it was Syrian.
Indeed, al-Assad’s clarification of who really owned the “Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shuba Hills” was a small part of a conversation that seemed, at the time, to add much needed octane to a peace mediation starting to sputter. He also made it clear that, in return for a peace treaty committing to Syria’s recovery from Israel all land lost during the 1967 June War, he would dissolve Syria’s military relationship with Iran and oblige Lebanon to make peace with Israel, thereby putting Hezbollah out of the “resistance” business altogether.
The full story of this critical meeting, and the peace mediation of which it was a part, will be told in a forthcoming book. Yet, as Lebanon struggles to reform and even reconfigure a political system that has brought nothing but failure and misery, perhaps the time is right to shed light on the false pretenses of a key driver in the country’s precipitous downfall: Hezbollah.
The meeting with al-Assad had been a long time coming. My main Syrian interlocutor for peace discussions that began in 2009 was Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who died in 2020. A genial but tough negotiator — a true believer in peace with Israel provided all land lost in the 1967 June War would revert to Syria — al-Muallem enjoyed the full confidence of his boss, al-Assad. But for the other party in the U.S. mediation — Israel — al-Muallem was simply not good enough for the dispositive lodging of Syrian commitments.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to be sure that al-Assad himself was committed to peace and to Syria’s regional strategic reorientation. He knew Syria’s price for peace: full territorial restitution. But the prospect of Syria breaking military ties with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas interested him deeply, and Netanyahu worried that any “yes” from al-Muallem might later be rejected or qualified by al-Assad. If Israel was going to agree to a major territorial adjustment, al-Assad himself had to commit to breaking relationships that endangered Israeli security. This was Netanyahu’s consistent position.
In May 2010, there was an important meeting in Damascus between al-Assad and John Kerry, then chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was a lengthy discussion that seemed to belie any substantive gap between the positions of al-Assad and al-Muallem. Indeed, Kerry’s report indicated that al-Muallem was more cautious than his superior in terms of putting commitments in writing. It was, in any event, a discussion that propelled the American peace mediation into a new and productive phase.
Yet the skepticism of the Israeli prime minister about al-Assad’s intentions was palpable and unmovable. Notwithstanding the repeated assurances of American mediators (based on the written product that emerged from the meeting between Kerry and al-Assad), he never seemed able to shake his personal suspicion that Kerry’s account of al-Assad’s readiness for peace (and al-Assad’s awareness of the price to be paid by Syria) was being optimistically shaped by a would-be peacemaker, someone Netanyahu viewed as all too eager to talk Israel into a potentially perilous territorial sacrifice.
At a meeting in Jerusalem in early 2011, Netanyahu was especially vociferous in his ongoing skepticism of al-Assad’s intent and al-Muallem’s bona fides. I proposed a solution: What if I were able to meet one-on-one with Syria’s president? What if I were to ask him, in the clearest possible language, the toughest questions concerning Syria’s readiness (in the context of a peace treaty meeting the needs of Damascus) to break regional military ties posing security threats to Israel? What if I were to make an independent assessment of al-Assad’s personal commitment to peace and then share it with the prime minister and his team? Netanyahu’s response was instant: Yes. Do it.
This was the genesis of my one-on-one meeting with the president of Syria on Feb. 28, 2011. Al-Assad was extraordinarily forthcoming in his stated willingness to drop Syria’s military relationship with Iran and to pull the plug on the so-called Lebanese Resistance. Everything was contingent, of course, on treaty terms providing for the return to Syria of all land lost in June 1967.
"Al-Assad’s absolute lack of hesitancy in declaring himself willing to trade long-standing relationships for recovering real estate surprised me".
Al-Assad’s absolute lack of hesitancy in declaring himself willing to trade long-standing relationships for recovering real estate surprised me. I had not anticipated he would be so categorical and forthcoming. And, as I absorbed what he was telling me, I wondered if he had accurately calculated how Iran and Hezbollah might react to being told by Syria that the Islamic Republic and its Lebanese proxy had been discarded by Damascus so that Syria could recover its real estate and make peace with the “Zionist enemy.”
I left Damascus for Jerusalem on March 1, 2011, wondering if al-Assad really believed his partners would react with sober, resigned equanimity to what they would consider a craven betrayal. Indeed, I would have felt better if he had said something along the lines of, “They will not like it. But I am prepared to fight them, if necessary, for the sake of Syrian interests.”
But no. He predicted that a Syria-Israel peace treaty would be followed by a Lebanon-Israel treaty and that the losers — Iran and Hezbollah — would readily fall into line. I was simultaneously stunned and unconvinced. Still, Netanyahu would, days later when briefed on the meeting, declare the mediation to be at a serious stage and authorize his team to take next steps.
Yet al-Assad’s Lebanon-related words on that last day of February piqued my interest at the time and have stayed with me ever since. The issue in question centered on the “Shebaa Farms” and their northeastern extension, the so-called Kfar Shuba Hills.
Seized by Israel in June 1967 as part of the Syrian Golan Heights, this small, very lightly populated strip of elevated land was (and still is) treated by United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon and on the Golan Heights as part of Syria occupied by Israel. Neither Lebanon nor Syria, in 1967 or for more than 30 years thereafter, claimed the land in question was anything other than the northernmost part of the Golan Heights; the political status of this acreage bordering Lebanon was never questioned. There was no objective reason for doing so.
All this changed in early 2000, as Hezbollah — the “Lebanese Resistance” fighting Israeli occupation for nearly two decades — anxiously confronted the implications of possible catastrophic victory: complete, unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. If the occupation were to end, what would there be to “resist”? With nothing to resist, how could Iran’s Lebanese proxy justify maintaining a militia independent of the Lebanese Armed Forces?
Indeed, as Israeli talk of quitting Lebanon picked up steam under Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 1999, Hezbollah floated its first “the resistance isn’t over” trial balloon in the form of the “Seven Villages” claim.
Seven Shiite villages in northern Palestine had been separated from related communities in Lebanon by the Anglo-French boundary demarcation of Palestine and Greater Lebanon, completed in 1924. In 1948 the villagers were stampeded from Palestine into Lebanon by an Israeli military offensive.
Hezbollah, anticipating Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, propagated the idea that the villages would have to be “returned” to Lebanon for Israeli occupation to be considered complete. It knew Israel would never comply with this outlandish demand. And Israel’s noncompliance would supposedly justify continued armed “resistance.”
Alas (for Hezbollah), the villages had never been in Lebanon in the first place. The claim was crude, amateurish, and unsustainable. I asked Lebanon’s Prime Minister Salim al-Huss in early 2000 about his government’s position on the Seven Villages issue. He was either mystified, embarrassed, or both. He turned to an aide who could do no more than recite the story told in the preceding paragraphs of this essay.
The problem Hezbollah raised with claiming land in Israel proper was that it undermined the official Lebanese position upholding the sanctity of the “international boundary” of the mandate period, a border converted into the “Armistice Demarcation Line” dividing Lebanon and Israel in 1949. Like it or not, the villages in question had always been considered by Beirut to be beyond its jurisdiction. And Lebanon constantly worried about Israel shifting the mandate/armistice line to its own advantage. To claim the Seven Villages would be to risk putting everything up for grabs.
"Syria — which wanted ‘The Resistance’ to continue as a pressure point on Israel — fell quickly into line with Hezbollah’s claim".
When, however, the United Nations — seeking to verify the completeness of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 — extended its line of Israeli withdrawal (the so-called blue line) from the old international boundary/Armistice Demarcation Line northeast to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from those parts of Lebanon bordering the occupied Golan Heights, a new territorial claim opportunity presented itself, one not involving Israel proper. Hezbollah seized on a piece of political-geographic esoterica to claim that a strip of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights containing several farms and pastures, plots allegedly owned by residents of the Lebanese village of Shebaa, was in fact Lebanese territory. Vive la Resistance!
Syria — which wanted “The Resistance” to continue as a pressure point on Israel — fell quickly into line with Hezbollah’s claim. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan would report, “In a telephone conversation with me on 16 May 2000, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Mr. (Faruq) al-Shara, stated that the Syrian Arab Republic supported Lebanon’s claim.”
Notwithstanding private land ownership claims by Lebanese citizens and a poor job by France in delineating a clear Lebanon-Syria boundary during the mandate era, the United Nations itself quickly rejected the false assertion of ongoing Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory and the unwarranted assault on its good-faith effort to verify Israel’s complete withdrawal.
Annan himself would note that “for 22 years in the context of the UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) area of operations” Lebanon had fully accepted what the blue line would ultimately reflect in terms of separating Lebanon from the Golan Heights. The secretary-general would also point out that Syria had endorsed the commonly accepted Lebanon-Golan line in its 1974 Disengagement Agreement with Israel. Indeed, virtually all maps — including one depicted on Lebanese currency — had shown the Shebaa Farms and the slopes of Mount Hermon to be beyond Lebanese jurisdiction.
Despite the fraudulent nature of the claim, successive Lebanese governments have been obliged by Iran, working through Hezbollah, to accept it as genuine. The subject was addressed during my Feb. 28, 2011, meeting with al-Assad.
Among other things, al-Assad assured me that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah would liquidate his organization’s “resistance” and fall into line with the provisions of a Lebanon-Israel treaty of peace, an accord that would, in al-Assad’s view, automatically follow the signing of a Syria-Israel treaty. I asked al-Assad if Nasrallah renouncing “resistance” would first require that Syria formally transfer the Shebaa Farms and associated territory to Lebanon.
His answer was unambiguous: No, it would not. Maps, according to al-Assad, clearly showed the territory in question to be Syrian. Once Syria recovered its territory from Israel, there would be talks with Lebanon about possible boundary adjustments here and there, about land ownership deeds and who issued them. But the land, said al-Assad, is Syrian. Full stop. So much for “The Resistance”!
Having studied and written about the Shebaa Farms controversy from the time of its invention, I was surprised (and gratified) by al-Assad’s direct dismissal not only of the Lebanese claim but also (by implication) of his own government’s recognition of it. As for possible talks with Lebanon about boundary adjustments and private deeds, official bilateral discussions had already taken place before the Golan Heights had been lost. Syria yielded nothing then to its Lebanese neighbor. At least one scholar has argued that Lebanon does indeed have a valid (though not indisputable) claim to the land in question; that claim is rooted in France’s failure to define Syria-Lebanon boundaries exactly.
Still, Lebanon never asserted in 1967 that a slice of its territory adjoining the Golan Heights had been occupied by Israel. It made no such claim until 33 years later. The territory later labeled “Shebaa Farms” and “Kfar Shuba Hills” was administered by Syria until it was lost to Israel in June 1967. Al-Assad’s decision in the spring of 2011 to kill peaceful protesters instead of pursuing peace with Israel has probably confirmed the permanency of that loss.
Yet al-Assad’s Feb. 28, 2011, dismissal of the Lebanese territorial claim underlying Hezbollah’s continued claim of “resistance” to ongoing Israeli “occupation” is, for the historical record if nothing else, worth noting. Al-Assad’s view of whose land was being occupied by Israel was clear: It was Syria’s.