Syria Says Mike Pompeo's Visit to Golan Shows His 'Allegiance to Israel' Over International Law

Syria has expressed to Newsweek its opposition to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to the Golan Heights, whose occupation and annexation by Israel is recognized by the United States but not the overwhelming majority of the international community.

Pompeo visited the disputed territory during a trip to Israel, the United States' closest ally in the Middle East, in what's projected to be the final weeks of President Donald Trump's administration.

The top U.S. diplomat's trip was hailed by Israel as a further legitimization of its control over the Golan Heights, but condemned by the Syrian mission to the United Nations as an example of the White House's unilateral prioritization of Israel and a flagrant violation of international law.

"By visiting the occupied Syrian Golan today, the Secretary of State, Pompeo, expresses the will of Trump Administration to prove, till the last day of its tenure, its allegiance to Israel and serving its interests on the expense of the stability and security of the region and welfare of its people," the mission told Newsweek in a statement.

The mission said the U.S. trip also "shows much disdain and contempt of international law and the U.N. Charter."

The Trump administration reversed decades of U.S. policy last year by recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel, which seized the territory during the country's 1967 war with a coalition of Arab states including Syria.

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited this decision along with the Trump administration's recognition of the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, its economic and military "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran and its efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as other Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, as evidence of why Israel "has no better friend in the world than the United States of America" under the current White House.

Standing alongside him at the Golan Heights, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also referred to Pompeo as "a great friend of Israel" on Thursday. He thanked his U.S. counterpart for realizing the "strategic importance" of the area to Israel.

Damascus' U.N. mission, on the other hand, argued that Washington's about-face on the Golan Heights "contradicts with the U.S. commitments as a permanent member of the Security Council that must maintain international peace and security and uphold principles of international law and provisions of the U.N. Charter."

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C-R) leaves following a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near Merom Golan on the border with Syria, on November 19. The top U.S. diplomat became the first in his position to visit a West Bank Jewish settlement and the Golan Heights, cementing Donald Trump's strongly pro-Israel legacy. PATRICK SEMANSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Pompeo, for his part, recalled "the international pressure to return this very place to Syria" as he visited the occupied territory. He warned of "the risk, the harm to the West and to Israel and to the people of Israel" should control of the Golan Heights be restored to Syria under President Bashar al-Assad, who Washington has accused of war crimes in the near decade long civil war between his government and an insurgency that once stretched nationwide.

Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. launched an effort to oust Assad by backing opposition forces but by 2015 had focused efforts on battling the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) with the support of a mostly Kurdish force called the Syrian Democratic Forces. Assad also battled the jihadis and other rebels, with his military receiving backing from Russia and Iran.

Successive victories across the country have allowed the Syrian government to regain the share of the Golan Heights it administers that meets a demilitarized zone across from the Israel-controlled section. Israel and Russia often discuss the situation in the country, but the presence of Iran and allied militias in Syria is considered by Israel to be a threat—especially across the Golan Heights.

Pompeo's visit on Thursday came less than two days after Israeli warplanes in the vicinity of the Golan Heights conducted airstrikes on what the Israeli military called "military targets, storage facilities, headquarters and military compounds belonging to the Iranian Quds force and the Syrian Armed Forces" in a statement sent to Newsweek.

Israeli forces said the raids came "in response to IEDs placed against Israeli troops on the Golan Heights" and provided photos and videos purported to show the placing of explosives, the subsequent Syria strikes and Israeli military activity at the de facto border in the Golan Heights.

The targets identified by Israel in the materials shared with Newsweek included a "military compound used by Quds Force," the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite foreign force, as well as the "headquarters of the Syrian Armed Forces 7th Division," which reportedly attempted to repel the attack with anti-air defenses.

The Syrian Defense Ministry said its forces managed to down some of the enemy projectiles, but reported on the deaths of three Syrian troops, the wounding of one additional soldier and material damage. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitor with ties to Syria's exiled opposition, reported 10 dead, three of which were Syrian, five likely Iranian and two of either Lebanese or Iraqi nationality.

The Syrian mission saw Pompeo's visit in the immediate aftermath of the strike as adding insult to injury, and further proving the Trump administration's disregard for international law.

"A permanent member of the Security Council should also stand firmly against acts of aggression perpetrated by Israel against countries of the region including its latest attack against Syria on November 17th, 2020," the mission told Newsweek.

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A clip from Israel Defense Forces shows Israeli strikes conducted overnight between November 17 and 18 in southern Syria. The IDF claimed to have struck a "military compound used by Quds Force," the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite foreign force, as well as the "headquarters of the Syrian Armed Forces 7th Division," which reportedly attempted to repel the attack with anti-air defenses. Israel Defense Forces

In previous statements sent to Newsweek, Syrian officials have called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, who they accuse of conspiring with the self-ruling Syrian Democratic Forces of plundering the country's oil in northeastern territories they control.

Russian and Iranian officials have also backed these calls in statements sent to Newsweek, while Syrian Democratic Forces leadership has called for a political solution to first be reached.

Though the U.S. has doubled down on sanctions against the Syrian government, whose economy has continued to struggle amid the financial crisis and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Newsweek reported last month that Washington and Damascus have been in talks regarding the fates of U.S. journalist Austin Tice and Syrian American psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz, and that the Syrian government was calling for sanctions relief and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the rebel-led southeast desert outpost of Al-Tanf.

Neither side has shared nor officially acknowledged the negotiations.

The intermediary for the latest message delivered to Washington last month, Lebanese General Security director Major General Abbas Ibrahim, told Lebanese broadcaster Al Jadeed over the past weekend that he traveled to Syria following his U.S. trip in order to advance the dialogue.