The Syrian Foreign Ministry also denied the reports, saying in a statement released from the ministry, "That there were no contacts, and the report is totally false," saying the report was unfounded and baseless.
According to Haaretz the alleged document was described as;
a "non-paper," a document of understandings that is not signed and lacks legal standing - its nature is purely political. It was prepared in August 2005 and has been updated during a number of meetings in Europe.
During the meetings the;
government officials received updates on the meetings via the European mediator and also through Dr. Alon Liel, a former director general at the Foreign Ministry, who took part in all the meetings.
The European mediator and the Syrian representative in the discussions held eight separate meetings with senior Syrian officials, including Vice President Farouk Shara, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and a Syrian intelligence officer with the rank of "general."
The contacts ended after the Syrians demanded an end to meetings on an unofficial level and called for a secret meeting at the level of deputy minister, on the Syrian side, with an Israeli official at the rank of a ministry's director general, including the participation of a senior American official. Israel did not agree to this Syrian request.
Israel has, according to the alleged document, agreed to a withdrawal of its military forces from the Golan Heights in accordance with the 1948 armistice line. The timetable for this withdrawal has not been agreed upon though with Syria demanding withdrawals within 5 years while the Israelis wanting to spread the withdrawal over 15 years.
According to Geoffrey Aronson, an American from the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, who allegedly was involved in the talks, the Golan Heights are to become a Syrian administered national park with the status of a demilitarized zone with access rights for both Syrians and Israelis alike. Syria is also obliged to end its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and distance itself from Iran.
Whether such secret negotiations have taken place or not is not easy to verify, but if they have it is not hard to understand why such negotiations have to be held in secret. The media noise that such breaking news are producing, when confirmed, can in itself destroy the relations built up during such negotiations, for the mere fact that politicians suddenly have to play more than one role when facing the scrutiny of the press. The talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis that led to the Oslo Accords
in 1993 underlines the need for and indeed importance of such secrecy, while difficult issues are being discussed.
But in order to understand the complexity of this issue you have to know the history and the relations between the parties in the area in general and the history and bilateral relations between Syria and Israel in particular. This history can best be described with three words: Distrust, Conflict and War.
The dispute between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights can be traced back to the year of 1967 and the Six-Day War, when Israel first conquered the Heights from Syria, but the prelude to the war was a dispute over the water resources in the area a precious commodity in that part of the world.
The Six-Day War and the battle of the Golan Heights
The Battle of the Golan Heights
during the Six-Day War (1967)
(Click for larger image)
In 1965 the neighbouring Arab countries began construction of the Headwater Diversion Plan, which, once completed, would divert the waters of the Banias Stream so that the water would not enter Israel, and the Sea of Galilee, but rather flow into a dam at Mukhaiba for Jordan and Syria, and divert the waters of the Hasbani into the Litani, in Lebanon.
This was said to be a response to Israel activating its National Water Carrier
project, finished the previous year, transferring water from the sea of Galilee in the north to the central and arid southern parts of the country through a system of aqueducts, tunnels, reservoirs and large scale pumping stations. The diversion works would have reduced the installed capacity of Israel's carrier by about 35%.
To prevent Syria from blocking the water running through the Jordan Valley coming into Israel the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) attacked the Syrian diversion works on three separate occasions in March, May, and August the same year. The attacks led to a chain of border clashes between Israeli and Syrian forces, border clashes that at a later stage would evolve into a full fledged war.
In 1966, Egypt and Syria signed a military alliance, initiated for both sides if either were to go to war and on April 7, 1967, a minor border incident escalated into a full-scale aerial battle over the Golan Heights, resulting in the loss of six Syrian MiG-21s. Tanks, heavy mortars, and artillery were used in various sections along the 47 mile (76 km) border in what was described as "a dispute over cultivation rights in the demilitarized zone south-east of Lake Tiberias."
A month later the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser initiated an Egyptian navy blockade of the Straits of Tiran, preventing the passage of all Israeli vessels.
With a navy blockade in place, with Arab armies amassed at its eastern, southern and northern borders and President Nasser allegedly proclaiming
"The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel ... to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation,"
Israel decided to launch Operation Focus
, a pre-emptive attack on the Egyptian and Syrian air forces destroying more than 2/3 of the two countries combat aircrafts and thus achieving air superiority. The aerial attacks were concentrated into three main waves and were so intense, with each Israeli pilot flying up to 2-3 sorties during the operation, that the Egyptian military high command was convinced that the Israelis had to have assistance from other countries.
One of the main reason for the delay in the Israeli ground attack on Golan was the sober fact that the northern command forces was busy engaging Arab enemy forces at the Samarian front (northern parts of the West Bank).
Another important reason for the delay was the dispute within the Israeli civil and military authorities over whether they should actively engage the Syrian ground forces on the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights is a rocky plateau that rises steeply 500 metres (1700 ft) from the Sea of Galilee. A potential attack on the Golan heights could mean great losses both in equipment and manpower according to military advisor's, a view the Israeli defence minister at the time Moshe Dayan
But the Israeli Prime minister Levi Eshkol
, backed by the even more enthusiastic head of the Northern Command, David Elazar,
was of another opinion, and finally the reluctant defence minister was swayed into agreement. On the morning of the 9th of June an attack was authorized involving four brigades, each attack force consisting of one armoured and one infantry brigade. Two brigades engaged the Syrian forces to the north and two brigades engaged the Syrian's in the central part of the Heights and by the evening of the 9th the four brigades had broken through to the plateau.
The next day the central and northern groups joined in a pincer movement on the plateau pushing further into the Syrian inland while armoured and paratrooper forces belonging to Elad Peled's division advanced from the south in a north-easterly direction. By the end of June 10, Israel had completed its final offensive in the Golan Heights and a ceasefire was signed the following day.
With the seizing the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan Heights, Israel's territory had grown by a factor of 3. Much of the reason for the Israeli success was due to excellent intelligence on the Syrian forces gathered by their most valued spy operating from within the Syrian elite in Damascus.
Seven years earlier, the Israeli Directorate of Military Intelligence, AMAN
, had recruited an Egyptian Jew and prepared him for undercover work in Syria. In order to strengthen his credentials Eli Cohen
was given a false identity and sent to Buenos Aires in an effort to infiltrate the Syrian community in the Argentinean capital.
In a short time Cohen, alias Kamel Amin Tabet, managed to gain the confidence of quite a few prominent Syrian's like the pro-Ba’athist editor of an Arabic-Spanish weekly, Abd a-Latif al-Hashan and Syria’s new military attaché in Argentina, Amin al-Hafez
, a man destined for the Syrian presidency some two years later.
Cohen stayed in Buenos Aires for almost a year before moving to Damascus, Syria, in January 1962 setting up shop and preparing for the second stage in his undercover operation. He began to cultivate relationships with the upper echelons of the Syrian society and befriended a Syrian radio broadcaster by the name of George Saif who introduced him to the inner courts of the Syrian elite.
With Amin el-Hafez back in Damascus, Cohen began to feed the Israelis with vital intelligence on Syrian military equipment and on a strategic plan to cut off northern Israel during a future invasion. But his most important achievement was undoubtedly the wide range of contacts he established with key personnel in the Syrian army and government, ties soon to prove invaluable.
In March 1963, the Ba’ath party staged a revolution. Cohen’s close friends, many of whom had enjoyed his financial and moral support, became Syria’s new rulers. Soon Cohen’s home became a venue for senior officers, and the site of exclusive parties for the Syrian elite. Cohen, who had gained the trust of Syria’s most powerful men, including Syria’s current minister of defence, was even invited to tour the Israeli border where he visited a classified military area and dined in a Syrian officers’ mess, all being meticulously memorized and communicated to his Israeli handlers back home.
In 1964 his control was transferred to Mossad
as part of an intelligence reorganization. When returning to Damascus, Cohen experienced a rapidly changing mood within the Syrian power elite. A mood more volatile, suspicious and threatened by the Egyptian-Syrian alliance opposed to the new regime. It was in the midst of such an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia that the head of Syrian intelligence, Colonel Ahmad Suweidani, decided to do his utmost to track down leaks that had been occurring and he was helped by the Soviets in his work to root out these leaks.
Slowly but surely Syrian intelligence began to locate the area from where Cohen's transmissions occurred and on January 18, 1965 Cohen's apartment was located by a wireless scanner supplied to the Syrians by the KGB. Syrian intelligence officials had previously raided the apartment complex where Cohen lived but had wrongly accused a UN official of espionage. This time the Syrian intelligence officials had been more thorough in their work and soon the intelligence officials stormed into the apartment and caught Cohen red handed while transmitting. A month later Cohen was put on trial, found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death by hanging.
Cohen has since his death become a legend not only within the Israeli intelligence community but also outside Israel’s borders. His ability to charm and befriend the Syrian power elite was the key to his success as an intelligence agent. Because of his Syrian contacts, Cohen was able to supply the Israelis with information crucial to their victory in the Six Day War.
The Yom Kippur War - The battle of the Golan Heights part. II
1973 Yom Kippur War - Golan Heights theater
(Click for larger image)
The overwhelming Israeli victory in the Six-Day War had severely shaken the rulers in the Arab world. The feeling of humiliation and defeat exacerbated the need for settling the score with the Jewish state. But due to a severely crippled military capacity Syria and Egypt couldn't afford another war with Israel.
As a substitute for a military rematch Nasser launched a "War of Attrition"
against its archenemy in the north, a limited and fixed war, involving artillery barrages and border clashes along the cease-fire line of 1967.
The aim was to soften the Israeli position on their occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, in the hope of forcing a war-weary Israel into making concessions.
Nasser's strategy was simple
If the enemy succeeds in inflicting 50,000 casualties in this campaign, we can go on fighting nevertheless, because we have manpower reserves. If we succeed in inflicting 10,000 casualties, he will unavoidably find himself compelled to stop fighting, because he has no manpower reserves.
Israel responded with a policy of "asymmetrical response"
, wherein Israeli retaliation was disproportionately large in comparison to Egyptian attacks. This kind of response was deemed necessary by the Israelis in order to compensate for their limited resources in comparison to the Egyptians, but the thought was also that this policy might deter their enemies from contemplating new and even greater acts of war.
The "War of Attrition"
strategy didn't have the effect the Egyptians had hoped for and in August 1970 a ceasefire was announced at the Suez canal which subsequently produced calm in the region. Also in the Golan Heights calm was actualized after a number of blows to the Syrians. When the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser
died a month later, his successor Anwar al-Sadat
, seemed to focus on rebuilding the Egyptian military forces instead, while severing the Soviet ties and in October 24, 1972, one year before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, in a meeting with his Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Sadat declared his intention to go to war with Israel even without proper Soviet support. The plan to attack Israel was worked out in secret and in concert with Syria in the early months of 1973 and was code-named "Operation Badr."
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a concept took hold of the Israelis intelligence and security establishment that the Arabs were unwilling to go to war against Israel. The concept was based on the idea that the 1967 War was such an overwhelming victory that the Arabs would not be able to overcome Israel for the time being.
Israeli intelligence had ample evidence of Egyptian and Syrian War plans, but in the wake of their great victory in the Six-Day War Israeli analysts just could not believe that their Arab neighbours would try a rematch.
The Israeli assessment was that Syria would not go to war with Israel unless Egypt went to war as well. The build-up of Egyptian forces along the Suez-Canal continued to be explained away as a practice exercise without harmful intentions. The Syrian deployments were more worrying for the Israeli military and political leadership since a Syrian attack, if Israeli defenses failed, could eventually mean the loss of the Galilee area. But because "the concept"
still held that Syria would not attack without Egypt, and Egypt was not planning to go to war, that meant that Syrian intentions could not really be aggressive in nature.
On the night of September 25, King Hussein of Jordan secretly flew to Tel Aviv himself to warn the current Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir of an impending Syrian attack, but to no avail.
The head of Israeli Military Intelligence (AMAN), Eli Zeira, was most confident in expressing the view that the probability of war was low. The Mossad Chief Zvi Zamir
on the other hand was less dismissive of Arab intentions, as were the current Israeli Chief of Staff David Elazar.
The reason for Zamir's scepticism was the information he got from one of Mossad's most valued sources at the time. In fact so much valued that he was later described by one senior Israeli intelligence officer as "the best agent any country ever had in wartime, a miraculous source…."
On October 5, 1973, at 2:30 a.m. Zamir received an alarming cable from "The Source"
, later identified as Ashraf Marwan the late Egyptian president Nasser's son-in-law, saying that war was certain.
What the cable disclosed was so alarming that the Mossad chief decided to meet "The Source"
in person in order to better assess the content of the cable and if possible get more detailed information. Non other than the AMAN chief was informed of the cables content at the time of Zamir's departure and at 3:45 a.m., on October 6,
Zamir called Zeira over an open telephone line telling him that the information was indeed accurate and that war would come that day before sunset, information that allegedly was distorted to a definite "sunset"
en route to the Israeli military and political leadership. At 0700 on 6 October 1973, the day of the attack, the Israeli GHQ informed her reserve commanders that war was imminent and orders were given to begin a full mobilization.
In hindsight it was, and still is, widely held that it was the assessments of Eli Zeira's men at the time, that led Israel to falsely believe that war was not imminent. It was this complacency and incorrect analysis of facts on the Israeli side together with a carefully planned and well arranged political and military deception on the Arab side that made the joint Syrian-Egyptian attack possible.
On October 6, 1973, during the Israeli holiday of Yom Kippur
, a coordinated attack was launched on Israel by Syrian forces in the north and by Egyptian forces in the south.
The attack was initiated by fire from 2,000 Egyptian guns against Israeli targets along the Suez Canal, while a 100 plane air strike followed immediately by artillery and rocket attacks against Israeli targets on the Golan Plateau, initiated the Syrian offensive in the north. Israel, having failed to pre-empt or mobilize early, was rocked out of her complacency in utter surprise.
Under an "umbrella"
of artillery fire the Egyptian forces moved across the Suez canal and began an assault on the line of Israeli fortifications on the other side of the canal, a system of fortifications called the Bar-Lev line
, named after the Israeli general and Chief of Staff at the time, Chaim Bar-Lev
, that initiated the building of the defence line.
The Egyptians assaulted the Bar-Lev Line with two field armies, the second and the third. To deal with the massive earthen ramparts that were a part of the Israeli defensive line, the Egyptians used water cannons fashioned from hoses attached to dredging pumps in the canal and within hours most of the fortifications were overrun.
Egyptian engineers established vehicle bridgeheads all along the canal; Egyptian armour began pouring across the canal by dark, and by midnight more than 500 Egyptian tanks and a forward anti-air defence umbrella were established on the east bank. After twenty-four hours, the Egyptians had put 100,000 troops, 1,020 tanks, and 13,500 vehicles across the Suez Canal, a formidable military force presenting if not an immediate, but still an existential threat to the Israeli state.
On the Israeli side the IDF chief of the Southern Command
, Shmuel Gonen
, after some disarray finally ordered a counterattack against the entrenched Egyptian forces and during the following days Israeli commanders initiate a number of tactical counterattacks in order to buy time while IDF reserve forces scrambled to mobilize, resulting in the loss of some 400 Israeli tanks destroyed by Egyptian infantry units equipped with anti-tank weapons like the Soviet produced Sagger missiles
A number of Syrian tanks left behind
at an Israeli anti-tank ditch
on the Golan during the Yom Kippur War
(Click for larger image)
Meanwhile on the northern front the Syrians attacked with some 1400 tanks and 28,000 troops in three mechanized infantry divisions advancing under the cover of close air support and artillery fire against the Israeli Northern Commander Yitzhak Hofi's
180 tanks. The battle was fierce, but the Syrian forces finally managed to break trough to the south of the Golan plateau due to overwhelming numbers.
Indeed the situation was deemed so grave and threatening to the Israeli leadership that the country was set on a nuclear alert for the second time, the first being under the Six-Day War, with the Prime Minister allegedly ordering the assembling of 13 twenty-kiloton nuclear bombs
for possible use, ("The Fat Man"
-bomb dropped over the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945 had a yield of about 21 kilotons of TNT).
On the eve of 7 October, the Syrian forces halted their advance. The Syrian's had expected that it would at least take 24 hours before the Israeli reserve forces was combat ready, while in fact, Israeli reserve units began reaching the battle lines only fifteen hours after the war began. The Syrian forces had lost their initiative and never gained it again.
The Israeli government viewed the situation on the Golan as extremely grave and decided to focus their efforts primarily in the north, fearing that if not the Syrian's would soon be advancing into Israel proper. Irrespective of peacetime plans for employment of mobilized reserves, the Israeli military leadership committed troops and tanks to the northern front without waiting for battalions, or even companies to form and soon the Israeli forces gained the upper hand.
Israel continued its offensive and by 10 of October all former positions held by Israeli forces were recaptured except for their most northern position on Mount Hermon, captured by Syrian commando soldiers in the beginning of the war. But the Israeli forces continued their offensive pushing the Syrian forces behind the armistice line of 1967 and deep into the Syrian inland, stopping only 40 Km from the Syrian capital Damascus.
On the southern front Israeli forces had suffered huge losses during their first counter attack. The Israeli reserve forces had finally joined the regular forces and strengthened the southern command, but the two new reserve divisions led by the two Generals Avraham Aden
and Ariel Sharon
met stiff resistance from the Egyptian forces.
According to plan, Aden's division was ordered to attack the Egyptian forces in the north while Sharon was to stay in a central holding position and assist Aden's forces if necessary. Due to confusion allegedly caused by unclear and conflicting orders coming from the Israeli Southern Command the attacks were uncoordinated and ill prepared.
Aden's forces met an unanticipated strong resistance which led to huge losses in his division and forced some of his forces to perform tactical retreat and reorganization. Meanwhile Sharon's division had left his central position and moved south leaving Aden's flank open to attack. When Aden reported his concerns to the Southern Command, Sharon was ordered to move north to assist Aden's forces. This led to a dispute between Gonen and Sharon ending in the replacement of Gonen and putting the former Chief of Staff Chaim Bar-Lev in command of the Southern front.
For the Israelis, the 8th was a severe shock, but they had also learned their lesson. Before Sharon was ordered back north to assist Aden's forces some of his units had discovered a gap in the Egyptian lines, something the Israelis soon exploited. On the 15 of October the Israelis launched "Operation Abirey Lev"
, the crossing of the Suez-Canal. Under heavy artillery fire one Israeli division creates a diversion by attacking westward while a second division moves to the rear of the Second Egyptian Army blocking its movements southwards.
Sharon then orders his paratroopers brigade to cross the Canal and establish a bridgehead on the Egyptian side. On October 16 the paratrooper commander reports that the brigade had successfully crossed the Canal and soon Sharon's first tanks rolls over the canal and takes up position on the Egyptian side. Aden's forces follow suit and advance toward the rear of the Third Army, destroying SAM sites en route and pushing the Israeli bridgehead 30 kilometres west of the canal and less than 100 kilometres from Cairo sealing the fate of the Egyptian war adventure.
On the 22 October, the Israeli Golani Brigade
and Israeli commando unit Sayeret Matkal
recaptured the outpost on Mount Hermon, after sustaining very heavy casualties from entrenched Syrian snipers strategically positioned on the mountain just before a cease-fire is declared both on the northern and the southern front.
The Israelis had finally won the war but at a great cost. Many lessons were learned in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War and the Agranat commission, lessons that the Israeli political and military leadership would sooner apply during the Lebanon War in 1982.
The overarching military strategy ratified by the Arab political leaders was the outgrowth of the attack plan formulated by Egyptian Chief of Staff Shazly and adopted by Egyptian and Syrian military leaders, Generals Ismail and Tlas when they met in April 1973.
The plan sought to achieve limited military objectives in order to facilitate the political aspects of the Arab grand strategy. The desired military end state was to hold lodgement’s within the occupied territories at the time a cease-fire was proclaimed and then achieve further territorial gains, the strategic end state, through negotiations conducted from a position of Arab strength.
The military aspect of Egypt's and Syria's grand strategy was of course not met, but the initial success of the Arab forces during the Yom Kippur War, led to a climate of d entente between the two former arch-enemies, Israel and Egypt, which ended up in the Camp David Accords
some 5 years later.
The Yom Kippur War didn't lead to a rapprochement between the two disputing parties in the north. Syria supported cross-border incursions into Israel by Palestinian Fedayeen
forces leading to a heightened tension in the Golan area, a tension that has been more or less persistent up until today. In 1981 the Israeli Knesset
passed the Golan Heights Law
which stated that Israeli law was now to be applied on the Golan, a move viewed by many as a de facto annexation of the territory, complicating the issue even further.
Towards reaching a lasting Peace?
The sea of Galilee seen from the Golan Heights
(Click for larger image)
The dispute over the Golan Heights has been one of the major obstacles to reaching a peace agreement between the two countries.
Hopes emerged of a peaceful settlement of the dispute when the Israeli Prime minister Ehud Barak
and the Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa
agreed to meet under the auspicious of the US president Bill Clinton
According to CNN sources
at the time of the negotiations;
Israel expressed a willingness to return to the 1923 borders between Syria and what was then Palestine. The older borders grant Israel several square miles of territory it says Syria encroached upon between that date and 1967.
"I think on the Golan Heights, Israel has indicated a real willingness to find a solution," said Shimon Peres, a former Israeli Prime minister and Labour party leader, at the time. "The formula offered by our late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, saying the depth of our withdrawal from the Golan Heights will equal the depth of the peace that the Syrians are ready to sign, is more than an indication of our willingness and readiness," Peres continued by saying.
During the US-brokered peace talks the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to return most of the Golan to Syria, but the negotiations broke down before and agreement could be reached.
If it has indeed been talks between the two parties the last few years it might very well indicate that both the Syrian and Israeli political leadership have come to realize that the need for a settlement of the dispute was weighed more important to overcome than previously thought. What is worth noting is that it, on the Israeli side, was three former general's with impeccable security credentials who drove the Palestinian peace process forward in 1993, 1999 and 2005. Two out of those three generals was affiliated to the Israeli Labour Party.
Still, the main sticking point during the 1999 talks is also likely to bedevil future negotiations on details and possible implementations of an agreement. Syria wants a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 border. This would give Damascus control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee - Israel's main source of fresh water.
Israel wishes to retain control of Galilee and says the border is located a few hundred metre's to the east of the shore having the Syrian shelling of Israeli settlements before the Six-Day War in mind.
An agreement between Israel and Syria on the Golan Height dispute could benefit both parties in the sense that more than 30 years of heightened tension and a state of war can finally come to a peaceful conclusion. Israel will then have concluded peace agreements with three of its Arab neighbours, which in time hopefully will lead to a gradual de-militarization of the area.