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
The answer is that without Undof things would be a lot worse. President Bashar al-Assad, for all his brutality, knows that waging war against Israel would mean almost certain punitive action by the United States and its allies. Occasional shots might be exchanged as both jostle for advantage but outright conflict must be avoided.
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.
Many rebel groups would love nothing more than to lure Israel into a conflict, which in turn would bolster their support and funding from overseas.
Despite the subsequent Austrian withdrawal, the attempt by Syrian rebels to occupy Undof positions on June 6th highlighted the enduring importance of the force’s mission.
When Syrian government forces moved tanks into the area to engage these rebel forces, the IDF informed Undof that it would launch an attack if the Syrians did not withdraw.
The movement of tanks was clearly prohibited under the ceasefire agreement of 1974 and subsequent UN resolutions. After a few frantic hours of Undof mediation, the Syrian tanks withdrew from the area. Israeli military intervention was avoided, but only just.
But Undof needs a lot more help if it is to prevent serious escalation in the Golan Heights.
First, the mission needs greater clarity on its rules of engagement against forces that intend to do it harm. The mission is under attack and force protection is a priority. Poorly disciplined rebel groups such as the al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade should be left in no doubt that the use of force against Irish or other Undof personnel will be met with force. Traditional unarmed observation is no longer possible in the face of repeated attacks and kidnapping. Undof needs the same unambiguous rules of engagement as many peacekeeping missions to protect the lives of its soldiers.
Second, the UN and the EU must prioritise Undof’s mission and the protection of its personnel in its dialogue with the Syrian government, rebel movements and their respective sponsors. Syria and Israel are increasingly ignoring UN security council resolutions limiting both sides’ military presence in areas on the Golan Heights.
Game of escalation
Both countries have repeatedly denied Undof personnel access to areas covered by Undof’s mandate. They are playing a dangerous game of escalation. Both should be reminded that it is in nobody’s interest except religious extremists for another war to break out between Syria and Israel.
The problem is that Israel, Syria and the international community have taken Undof for granted for too long. The Government should strongly make the case at the UN and at the EU for Undof to get the political and military assistance it needs.
Ed Burke is an associate researcher at the Foundation for International Relations