Deployment of Irish Defence Forces to Golan Heights is a pragmatic move
The situation in Syria is dire. Ireland is well-placed to help make things better
Israeli soldiers sit atop a tank as they patrol near the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Photograph Reuter/Baz Ratner
The decision to deploy an Irish Defence Forces mechanised infantry company to the Golan Heights as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) follows a significant reassessment by the UN secretary-general. This UN observer mission was deployed in 1974 following the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Syria after the so-called Yom Kippur war in the Middle East.
The most recent UN reports from the region point out that despite the deteriorating situation, the ceasefire between Israel and Syria was generally maintained. A serious threat posed to UN personnel is being caught in the crossfire between Syrian forces and armed opposition groups. Although the Irish forces will be part of an observer mission that will not require enforcing the terms of agreement between Israel and Syria, it does mean exposure to risk.
In theory, the parties to the conflict are required to co-operate with the UN forces. In reality, there have been serious clashes between the Syrian forces and opposition forces in the “zone of separation”.
The Syrian military presence in the zone is a violation of the ceasefire agreement with Israel. The exchanges of fire between Israel and Syria have been serious. Tank, missile and heavy machine-gun fire have led to casualties.
The civil war in Syria has led to violations of the ceasefire agreement that have precipitated military responses from Israeli forces. This has led to exchanges of fire. The opposition forces in Syria are a disparate group with no central command. This makes negotiations hard. Added to this, there has been some serious infighting among the opposition forces. Mines also pose a threat to UN staff and civilians.
Syrian forces have established checkpoints. These have interfered with the freedom of movement of the UN observers. They have also hampered operations and normal supply arrangements to UN posts. Freedom of movement is essential for the carrying-out of the mandate. UNDOF and the other UN observer mission in the region, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, have relied on static but vulnerable positions.
UN posts have been subject to direct and indirect fire from Syrian forces and opposition groups, forcing UN personnel to take shelter. This is not a safe and secure environment for any UN personnel.
That being said, Ireland was specifically requested to support this mission. From a logistical point of view, it is an efficient and cost-effective deployment, as Ireland has much of what is needed for this mission in the region owing to the downsizing of the Irish contribution to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. This makes Ireland well-placed to supply the personnel and equipment needed, given the threat assessment.
It reflects the acknowledged expertise of Defence Forces personnel. Although this is the first time Ireland will contribute a contingent to this mission, Irish officers are already present there as part of the truce supervision mission, and others have served in senior posts and as military observers.
The current UN forces are being subject to continuous harassment. There have been threats, kidnappings, theft and destruction of equipment. Although UN observers should not need to be armed, the situation on the Golan requires troops with good force protection and mobility capabilities. The Defence Forces have experience in similar roles in other conflict zones. This is what makes the Irish contribution so imperative.
The deployment comes in response to the Austrian and Croatian decision to withdraw. The situation in Syria can only be described as dire. This is a small but significant contribution to peace and security.
It also vindicates the Defence Forces’ decision to invest heavily in force protection. In the past, the Government and Defence Forces have been accused of being risk-averse in terms of UN missions. The decision to deploy should be seen as a pragmatic and positive commitment.
Prof Ray Murphy has served as a UN peacekeeper in Lebanon. He directs the LLM in peace operations, humanitarian law and conflict at NUI Galway