The Syrian Yarmouk Brigades: A New Islamic Threat to the West?

On March 6, 2013, a little-known group of Syrian rebels calling themselves Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades, fighting against the Bashar Assad regime, took 21 Filipino members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) as hostages.  The group demanded that the Syrian president stop any further military attacks in the area and pull back from the vicinity of Jamlah, less than a mile from the Golan Heights line, before the hostages would be freed.  Now that the hostages have been released, it is worth exploring other consequences of the event and future possible developments.

As a result of the action of the Brigades, the UNDOF, a four-nation contingent of about 1,000 troops in the demilitarized zone of the Golan, was drawn into the ongoing Syrian civil war.  UNDOF had been established in May 1974 to supervise the armistice agreement between Israel and Syria after the Yom Kippur war and to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 338 which called for cessation of hostilities.  UNDOF's mission was to keep the peace in the Golan Heights, a militarily strategic area and one contested by the two sides.  The immediate outcome may be the withdrawal of UNDOF from the Golan ceasefire zone, thus leaving the area open to the entrance of extreme Islamist groups hostile to Israel.

The hostage event has also led to a display of unintentional irony and absurdity.  The foreign ministry of Syria, a country which since March 2011 has been responsible for the death of 70,000 of its own people, called on the United Nations to "unequivocally condemn the attacks of those terrorist groups against civilians and work to dislodge those terrorist groups immediately from the region."  It was referring to Golan, not to Hamas in Gaza.

The action by the Yarmouk Brigades raises the questions of the ownership or control of the disputed Golan Heights, and the possible real objective of the Brigades.  Like other areas in the Middle East, the Golan has been the scene of power struggles throughout history: at different times, the area has been controlled by Amorites, Arameans, Jewish tribes, Babylonians, Romans, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, Byzantines, and from the 16th to the 20th centuries by the Ottoman Empire.  Under the Ottomans, the area was not a political entity of any kind, but part of an administrative district, the Vilayet of Damascus.  It was for centuries a desolate area.

After World War I, the League of Nations set up two mandates: the British Mandate for Palestine, and the French Mandate for what became two new countries, Syria and Lebanon.  In December 1920, the borders of the latter countries were set in principle by the Franco-British Boundary Agreement: the exact details were established in March 1923.  After World War II, the process of decolonization began, and in 1946, the Syrian Arab Republic was established.  The extent of the territory of the independent Syrian country was created by the two former European colonial powers, not by the indigenous population based on an assertion of historic rights.

Among other outcomes, the result of the conflict between the Arab countries and Israel led in 1967 to Israeli control of the Golan Heights.  On June 19, 1967, Israel proposed to return the Heights to Syria in exchange for peace.  The offer became irrelevant with the Arab League Khartoum Declaration of September 1, 1967, signed by eight Arab states with its three vetoes: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.  The Declaration called for international political and diplomatic action to "ensure the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied Arab territory."

After a fourteen-year period when Golan was under Israeli military control, an Israeli law of December 14, 1981 referring to the area declared that Israeli "law, jurisdiction and administration" applied to it, though it was not formally annexed.  The edict was immediately condemned by the U.N. Security Council Resolution 497 of December 17, 1981, which declared that the Israeli decision was "null and void and without international legal effect."  It called on Israel to desist from changing the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure, and legal status of the occupied Syrian Golan, and to desist from the establishment of settlements.  Since December 16, 1982, a number of similar resolutions opposing Israeli claims to the area have been passed by the United Nations General Assembly.

Since 1967, an informal "purple line," the counterpart of the "green line" in the West Bank, has been in effect in the Golan.  Israel now occupies about two thirds of the plateau, 450 square miles, and Syria controls the other 220 square miles of it as part of its 71,000 square miles country.  Israelis live in about 40 settlements in the area, with a population of 20,000.  In 1973, Israel returned five percent of the area to Syria which the UNDOF patrols as the demilitarized zone.

Though the United Nations organizations have refused to accept Israeli authority over Golan as valid or legal and are particularly critical of settlements in the area, that control is in essence a necessary defense against the threat of Syrian aggression in the area.  Decision on the disputed territories of Golan, as in the case of Palestine, can ensue only from final peace negotiations.

The hostage-taking of March 2013 is revealing from another perspective, to which virtually no attention has been paid.  The name of the group that took the hostages, Yarmouk, is symbolically important in Arab and consequently world history.  It was in 636 A.D. that the Arabs under the Rashidun Caliphate defeated the armies of the Christian Eastern Roman empire in a battle along the Yarmouk river, about 40 miles from the Golan Heights.  The battle ended Byzantine rule in the area.  It can be seen as one of the most decisive battles in history, being the first great triumph of Islamic forces.  It opened the way for Islamic control in the Middle East and to further conquests in the world.

The Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades, by their choice of name, are evidently aware of the symbolism of this historic victory and affirmation of Islamic power.  It remains to be seen if their action was simply a symbolic demonstration of that power, or if they have greater ambitions to gain influence or control in Syria itself and to extend their aggression against those they regard as non-believers.