We talk about Syria like it’s still a nation state.
Talking with military intelligence experts along the northern Israeli border with Lebanon and Syria, it becomes clear that’s not the case.
Rebel fighters, the Islamic State, Kurds and Turkey – along with the Assad regime and its affiliated groups, which include Hezbollah – have carved what was Syria into chunks. What was Syria is fractured and the international borders are largely meaningless.
The conflict in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon now, simply put, can be boiled down to a fight between Shia and Sunni Muslims, as Iran tries to extend further its influence in the region and to create a Shia arc.
While many Americans – myself included – have focused our attention on the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, Israel’s gaze is fixed squarely on Iran and its proxies.
Wine on the Golan Heights
In February on the Golan Heights and the northern border of Israel, the wind blows and it is cold, even for New Englanders.
The only way business casual clothing is appropriate is if you business is arctic explorer.
I expected the Golan Heights to be highly militarized, something along the lines of the DMZ in Korea. I also thought it would be more urban.
There are visible signs of conflict – border signs and military outposts, minefields and bunkers – for sure. But there are also farms, villages and wineries.
We visited the Assaf Winery. Frankly, it wouldn’t have been out of place in Napa Valley or Sonoma. It had a rustic and open feel, a hipster coffee shop and cabins for rent. Two dogs lounged in the lobby, and young fashionable people – clearly not with our group – sat around sipping nice, family produced wines. Assaf isn’t the only successful winery in the Golan.
Wineries are a particular, long-term investment. It takes time for the vines to mature and they don’t react well to tank treads or rockets, as few things do.
From the hilltop where we looked over into Syria, you could see villages controlled by the Islamic State, Al-Qaida and Hezbollah. But just a few miles across pastures, the bourgeoisie feels right at home.
Cruising through a minefield
I’m a bit of a car nut.
In the Golan Heights, we traveled in a small convoy of three trucks through farmland to a strategic overlook into Syria. We stopped where a military bunker still sits.
Two Land Rover Defenders and a Toyota Land Cruiser carried us there.
I love old Defenders. They’re boxy, big, awkward and slow, but a dream car nonetheless. I was happy for the chance to ride in one, first in the jump seats in the back and then up front on the return.
We took legendary vehicles along a deeply rutted and muddy farm road, crossing between pasture land and clearly marked and fenced off mine fields, left over from past wars. There’s an ongoing effort to clear the mines, but thousands of acres are off limits due to the danger.
We drove through tank moats, long since breached, slipping and sliding around corners, through gullies and up steep hillsides. It was awesome.
Upon our return, short on time, we took a different route. Turns out we could have easily avoided part of the off-road trip if we had been so inclined.
The trucks were real, the mines are real, the scars of war are real, and the proximity to Al-Qaida, Hezbollah and the Islamic State are definitely real.
Put me in a Defender and I’ll ride with you anywhere – even to the edge of Syria.
I traveled to Israel from Feb. 12-18 with the American Israel Education Foundation, the nonprofit arm of AIPAC. The foundation funds educational seminars to Israel for members of Congress and other political influentials. These AIEF-sponsored trips help educate political leaders about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship through firsthand experiences in Israel, briefings by experts on Middle East affairs, and meetings with Israeli political elite. Traveling with me was a group of 12 other people from New England.