Concern over Irish troops in Syria

Opinion: Irish diplomats should raise issue in Washington, Europe and in the Middle East

Votes of the three candidates in Syrian presidential elections are counted following to the closure of the polls in Damascus, Syria, early yesterday. Youssef Badawi/EPA

Votes of the three candidates in Syrian presidential elections are counted following to the closure of the polls in Damascus, Syria, early yesterday. Youssef Badawi/EPA

Thu, Jun 5, 2014, 00:01

The 117 Irish soldiers based in Syria as part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force – the thin blue line separating Syrian and Israeli forces on the Golan Heights since 1974 – are coming under attack from Syrian rebels armed, trained and paid by the US, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Government needs to protest loudly to these countries to protect the lives of its soldiers and the aims of the UNDOF mission.

Irish soldiers frequently come under fire and are threatened by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the UNDOF “disengagement zone”. Some Syrian rebels believe Irish soldiers are Russians – UNDOF convoys have been harassed as a result.

On January 22nd, a Syrian rebel shot at an alleged Russian soldier through the open back door of an UNDOF vehicle. Amazingly he failed to kill anyone – but slightly wounded one soldier, after a bullet ricocheted off his helmet.

Both the Syrian regime and the rebels have used armoured vehicles – including tanks – in the UNDOF disengagement zone in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions. Meanwhile, rebels continue to occupy UNDOF defensive positions, use stolen UNDOF vehicles and wear body armour with UN markings – taken from peacekeepers they kidnapped in 2013. These same rebels are part of the “Southern Front” – a loose alliance of “moderate” rebel militias who receive direct (and increasing) support from the US, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The Yarmouk Brigade that operates near the Golan Heights is responsible for much of the direct fire and harassment against UNDOF. It is led by Bashar al-Zoabi, a former travel agent turned guerilla, and is a key part of the “Southern Front”.

Al-Zoabi is an important interlocutor for the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies. Members of the Yarmouk Brigade have taken part in a CIA training programme in Jordan authorised by US president Barack Obama in 2013.

Al-Zoabi and other “Southern Front” rebel leaders have been quick to reassure their Western partners they are not connected with al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, including the al-Nusra Front. The Yarmouk Brigade has already received a range of weapons, including anti-tank missiles, from foreign donors. Now they say they have been promised man-portable air defence systems .

Increasing atrocities

The problem is that the Yarmouk Brigade is far from “moderate” and works closely with jihadi groups, including the al-Nusra Front.

From February 16th to 20th, Irish and other UNDOF soldiers came under fire during clashes between the Syrian army and rebels. This was part of an offensive combining the Yarmouk Brigade with the al-Nusra Front. Al-Nusra has steadily built up its presence along the Golan Heights over the past year, working closely with the Yarmouk Brigade. They have jointly controlled some border crossings between Syria and Jordan.

The Yarmouk Brigade now flies a black jihadi flag and wears similar headbands. UNDOF soldiers have reported increasing atrocities in the Golan area; in February, five Syrian soldiers were beheaded within sight of UNDOF peacekeepers.

Israel sees a victory by the al-Nusra Front and its allies on the Golan Heights as the greater threat to its security. Its military believes the worst is still to come in the Golan and predicts that jihadi groups will grow stronger and seize more territory. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) recently deployed the 210th Regional Bashan Division to its border with Syria, a reinforcement of IDF capabilities in the region. It has also placed a combat intelligence battalion on the Golan Heights.

Israeli predictions appear to be coming true; at the end of April the al-Nusra Front and other rebel groups seized Syrian military positions near the Golan. As the fighting escalates, UNDOF’s future becomes more uncertain.

Political help

Attacks by rebels against UNDOF have prompted Israel to draw up contingency plans for the Golan Heights, including launching attacks on jihadi groups inside Syria.

UNDOF may reach a tipping point – the mission will become ineffective if UN peacekeepers are constantly under fire. There is no point in trying to monitor a ceasefire from a bunker.

Irish troops have brought essential capabilities to UNDOF, including enhanced firepower, mobility and counter-IED expertise. They have deployed to the more dangerous Syrian side of the disengagement zone. When directly fired upon, they have not hesitated to fire back.

For now, Irish soldiers have saved UNDOF from operational irrelevance and a disastrous escalation of conflict between Syria and Israel. But they need political help; the US, Jordan and Saudi Arabia must make it clear to their allies in Syria (including the Yarmouk Brigade) that attacks upon UNDOF are not acceptable and will impact upon arms supplies and other support.

Irish diplomats should communicate these concerns in Washington, Europe and in the Middle East.

The storm in the Golan may only be the beginning. A regional war involving Israel would be catastrophic; UNDOF, and by extension Ireland, may be all that stands in the way of that happening. Edward Burke is an associate fellow at FRIDE (the Foundation for International Relations). Twitter: @Edward__Burke

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