Troops role in Golan Heights to be re-evaluated, Coveney says

Irish soldiers help rescue 35 Filipino peacekeepers surrounded by 300 armed rebels

A member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) looks through binoculars at Mount Bental, an observation post in the Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Qunietra crossing. Photograph: Baz Ratner /Reuters

A member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) looks through binoculars at Mount Bental, an observation post in the Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Qunietra crossing. Photograph: Baz Ratner /Reuters

 

The role of the Irish Defence Forces in the Golan Heights is to be re-evaluated following clashes between UN peacekeepers and Syrian rebels, the Minister for Defence has said.

Simon Coveney said the safety of troops will be his first priority when decisions are made about whether Ireland has a future involvement in Golan.

“I’m not going to send Irish soldiers on peace keeping missions that involve them getting dragged into a very bitter and very nasty civil war which is what has been happening in the last few days,” he said.

But, he said he would not rush into a decision.

“There needs to be a full evaluation of what happened and the response of the UN, and then of course decisions need to be made that reduce the likelihood of something like this happening again,” he said.

The Minister’s comments came after Irish soldiers returned safely to Camp Faouar, the troop’s headquarters in the region, following an operation to help evacuate 35 Filipino UN peacekeepers.

The Filipino soldiers were surrounded by up to 300 armed rebels at the Breiqa encampment when the Irish Quick Reaction Force was sent in early on Saturday morning. The force secured a withdrawal route for the Filipino troops and escorted them to a reinforced UN position.

Some 130 Irish soldiers are part of the 1,200-strong UN Disengagement Observation Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights. The current Irish contingent, the 44th infantry group, has been in the area since March.

There has been a UN mission in the area since 1974 to help secure a peaceful buffer and demilitarised zone between Syria and Israel. But in the last few weeks, the demilitarised zone has become a battleground for Syria’s civil war struggles and fighting has continued between Syrian government forces and armed rebels.

Some 43 UN peacekeepers from Fiji were captured by rebels on August 28th and are still being detained by them. Negotiations to secure their release are ongoing and are not expected to involve any active military engagement.

Last night, a Defence Forces spokesman said in light of ongoing operations the 44th Infantry Group remained on high alert and was “prepared for further taskings from the Force Commander”.

Mr Coveney said Irish troops had come through a very difficult three days and he was “extremely proud” of them.

“They performed with real courage and professionalism doing a very difficult job in a very sensitive mission and they have done it really well,” he said.

“Not only have they protected themselves they have also done a lot to protect other UN soldiers, particularly getting Filipino soldiers out of a post that had been surrounded and was under attack.”

He described Irish soldiers as “the best armed and the best trained” on the UN mission and said the immediate danger for them had now passed.

The Minister said once negotiations to try and secure the release of the 43 Fijian peace keepers were complete, Ireland would be insisting on a full re-evaluation and a discussion around whether or not the mission could continue “in a different guise, given the complexities of the civil war in Syria”.

The Government would have to be satisfied that it could be done “in a way that guarantees an acceptable level of risk as opposed to what we have seen in the last two days”, he said.

“When you have UN posts being directly attacked within a country and within an area that is supposed to be a demilitarised zone well then there are real problems with that and so if Irish troops are to remain part of a mission between Israel and Syria then there will have to be a full re-evaluation by the UN,” the Minister said.