Irish troops need backing and clarity in Undof role
Irish personnel must be protected as Israel and Syria flout UN rules in the Golan Heights and soldiers are put in danger
Israeli soldiers walk during training close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights last month. “Undof is the indispensable blue wedge that has kept Israel and Syria from renewing hostilities. And without it, the Israeli Defence Forces would move directly into contact with Islamist rebels as well as Syrian government forces.” Photograph: Reuters/Baz Ratner
On July 16th, the Government approved its most dangerous military deployment since taking office, agreeing to send a mechanised infantry company to the UN Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights in Syria.
Undof’s task – the maintenance of a demilitarised zone flanked by two areas of limited military activity agreed by Syria and Israel as part of the ceasefire ending the 1973 Yom Kippur war – has been severely complicated by the civil war that has gripped Syria for over two years.
The more than 100 Irish troops deploying to Syria will be flying into a very “hot” conflict zone. If the last months are anything to go by, Irish soldiers will almost certainly come under attack.
They require two things to accomplish their mission and protect their lives: political support and clarity on when they can open fire.
The decision by the Government to send troops is a courageous one, coming in the wake of the withdrawal of contingents by Japan, Croatia and, most recently, Austria. After a sustained attack in the early hours of June 6th by a Syrian rebel group on Undof positions near the town of Quneitra, the Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann declared that Austrian soldiers faced “an uncontrollable and direct threat” and recalled his country’s 377 Undof personnel.
The events of June 6th are not an isolated incident: Undof personnel have repeatedly come under fire, had their observation positions overrun and equipment looted or destroyed.
Disarmed and kidnapped
Worse, on several occasions, soldiers were disarmed and kidnapped by Syrian rebels. Insurgent groups such as the al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade are responsible for most of the most egregious attacks. Not only have Undof personnel been hurt, but unarmed Syrian military liaison officers have been abducted by rebels from Undof positions and then executed.
Other troop contributors are threatening to quit the mission. At the end of June, the Filipino government informed UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that it would withdraw its 341 peacekeepers if the UN could not provide better protection for its troops.
Manila was alarmed by the Austrian withdrawal and wanted the deployment of another, better-armed European contingent to Undof.
Sweden thought long and hard but ultimately said no. The Swedish government wanted to deploy as part of a larger, well-armed Nordic contingent – but the Danish, Norwegian and Finnish governments were not convinced.
The limited Irish deployment, together with new contingents from Fiji and Nepal, might be enough to keep the Filipino contingent in Undof – at least for now. Irish troops will come under a lot of pressure in the force.
The Irish contingent is the most capable in the mission and will face repeated calls for assistance.
Undof, a poorly resourced mission designed to prevent inter-state conflict, finds itself caught in the middle of a vicious civil war – why then should Irish troops deploy to the Golan Heights at all?