Western strikes on Syria could expose Irish troops in the region
Irish peacekeepers in Lebanon at risk from potential Hizbullah reprisals on UN forces
A soldier cleans his shoes on top of a tank as Israeli troops take part in a military exercise yesterday near the border of Syria, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Irish troops are to be deployed in mid-September to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the area. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Irish troops serving with United Nations peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon and those due to be deployed to the Golan Heights next month could be at risk from reprisals should the US and her allies launch air strikes on Syria.
About 360 Irish military personnel are serving with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) alongside 170 Finnish armed forces personnel in a joint force commanded by the Irish.
A further 115 Irish troops are to be deployed in mid September to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Unfod) on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, which the UN has monitored since 1974, following the end of the Yom Kippur war.
Three Irish troops already serve in the Golan Heights in addition to 12 Irish military personnel deployed with the UN’s truce supervision organisation in Syria, Israel and Lebanon.
Any military strikes launched by the US and her allies – Britain, France and Turkey – in response to the suspected chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians last week could expose UN troops to reprisals from Hizbullah, the Lebanese militant group allied to president Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Hizbullah has warned it would strike against Israel should the US and its allies launch an attack on Syria.
Richard Gowan, an expert on Middle Eastern security and research director at New York University’s Centre on International Cooperation, believes Unifil forces could be vulnerable to retaliatory strikes from Hizbullah as the group has made “very pointed warnings” to the UN about the force’s vulnerability.
French and Turkish forces serving with the UN would be Hizbullah’s most likely target because they are seen as coming from strongly anti-Assad countries, though all Unifil troops would be vulnerable, he said.
“I wouldn’t rule out that any contingent in the force is at risk, including the Irish. How far Hizbullah would go is unclear,” said Gowan.
“There has been a sense throughout the Syrian war that Hizbullah does not want to bring Unifil crashing down because it doesn’t want to risk a new war with Israel but I think air strikes might be a game-changer and Unifil would be a target.”
Unifil would be left in a “very vulnerable position” if Hizbullah fired rockets towards Israel from southern Lebanon in response to Western strikes on Syria.
An attack by pro-Assad forces on UN troops on the Golan Heights is less likely because “that could really upset the balance with Israel”, said Gowan.
A spokesman for the Irish Defence Forces, Commandant Denis Hanly, said the security situation where the Irish troops were operating in Lebanon “remains calm but increasingly unstable due to domestic and international factors largely stemming from the spillover effects of the Syrian crisis”.
Irish troops are being deployed to the Golan Heights at the request of the UN, bringing its force there to 1,250 after Austria said it was withdrawing 380 troops because the area had become too dangerous.