Syria has vowed to retake the Golan Heights as Donald Trump’s call for the US to recognise the occupied territory as part of Israel elicited strong responses from Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The president ended half a century of US foreign policy and broke from post-second world war international consensus that forbids territorial conquest during war with a tweet on Thursday that said it was time “to fully recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights”.
Trump said the territory was “of critical strategic and security importance to the state of Israel and regional stability”.
Israeli troops took control of the volcanic plateau from Syria in the six-day war in 1967 and later annexed it, moves that were condemned by the UN security council and never internationally recognised.
Syrian state media said on Friday that the country was now “more determined to liberate it by all possible means no matter what,” citing a foreign ministry source. Damascus said Trump’s statement showed “the blind bias of the United States” towards Israel but would not change “the fact that the Golan was and will always be a Syrian Arab territory”.
Syria’s allies Russia and Iran also lambasted Washington. Iran said the announcement was “illegal and unacceptable”, and Russia pointed out that a change of the status of the Golan Heights would be a direct violation of UN resolutions.
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters the comments “can destabilise the already fragile situation in the Middle East”.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, warned on Friday that Trump’s “unfortunate” declaration had brought the region “to the brink of a new crisis and new tensions”.
“We will never allow the legitimisation of the occupation of the Golan Heights,” he said.
European powers also warned of the potential damage to international order.
The French foreign ministry said: “The recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, occupied territory, would be contrary to international law, in particular the obligation for states not to recognise an illegal situation.”
Germany’s government condemned what it said were “unilateral steps”. “If national borders should be changed it must be done through peaceful means between all those involved,” spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said.
In the decades since its capture, Israel has conducted negotiations with Syria to reach a peaceful solution over the Golan, without success. Syria failed to retake the region by force in 1973 and the two countries signed an armistice a year later.
In 2000, Syria’s then president, Hafez al-Assad turned down a deal after Israel refused to give him back access to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, at the base of the Golan Heights. Both sides covet the area’s water resources.
Photograph: Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images
Israel has since entrenched itself by building military bases and establishing a robust civilian foothold including multiple tourism projects. It has become one of Israel’s less explosive border disputes, especially since Damascus has been distracted by its own civil war.
Iran, its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and Russia have all sent forces to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad during the conflict. Israel’s air force has conducted bombing raids on bases in Syria it believes house Iranian personnel and also on alleged weapon transfers to Hezbollah.
Last May, Israel said Iranian troops fired a barrage of rockets at its positions in the Golan. The flare-up was seen as a response to Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which angered Tehran.
Dan Altman, an assistant professor at Georgia State University who specialises in territorial conquest, said the US had employed a policy of “non-recognition”, for example by rejecting Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“There is generally no need to take a public position recognising a conquest that neither created nor destroyed a country,” he said. “Usually, it is easier to avoid taking a position on sovereignty over the disputed territory. Silence, neutrality and calls to cease hostilities are common policy responses.”
He could not point out a clear example of the US recognising territory captured in war in recent decades but said one case was North Vietnam’s conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, which Washington in effect recognised by normalising relations in 1995.
Israel has long been pressing Washington to recognise its claim over the 1,200 sq km (460 sq miles) area, arguing it needs the plateau as a high-ground security buffer.
Palestinians fear the acceptance of Israel’s claim to the Golan will act as a stepping stone to US recognition of another territory it captured in the same 1967 war and continues to rule – the occupied West Bank. That move would in effect end US support for a Palestinian state as it is currently envisioned.
Trump previously broke with decades of US foreign policy in relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.