Volatile conditions await Irish troops in Syria

Soldiers warned they must stay on alert in latest United Nations posting

Members of the 44 Infantry Group of the Irish Defence Forces at the Glen of Imaal in the final phase of intense training prior to their deployment to Syria in March where they will serve with UNDOF. Video : Bryan O'Brien

 

The situation in Syria facing a new deployment of Irish troops travelling there in coming weeks is volatile and can worsen at any time and with no notice, one of the Defence Forces most senior officer’s has warned.

Deputy Chief of Staff Brig Gen Ralph James said the 129 members of the 44th Infantry Group about to travel to the Golan Heights must remain on high alert and be prepared for life threatening situations for the six months they are deployed with the United Nations.

Some flashpoint incidents in recent weeks, including a MOWAG armoured personnel carrier being hit by gunfire and then losing a wheel to an explosive devices as it withdrew, had tested the Irish.

“The lads went through all their drills, handled everything and extracted themselves,” Brig Gen James said of the most significant incident in the mission to date last November.

“There’s been a couple of other minor incidents where they came under fire as well, but each time the vehicles have stood up to it and the troops have stood up to it. “

Brig Gen James made his comments at a training exercise with simulated explosions today in the Glen of Imaal, Co Wicklow, where the troops set for the Golan Heights were undergoing one of their final large-scale drills before departure.

He said the roadside improvised explosive device (IED) was assessed as the biggest threat on the ground in Syria at present.

“But they’ve been trained for all the normal soldiering skills and they’ve been equipped,” he said of the troops.

“They have to hit the ground running so we have to push them here and they’ve responded and shown themselves up to it.

“At the moment it’s calm relatively speaking. But it’s volatile, it can bubble over at any minute.

“And that’s when we have to have them ready, we have to keep them ready. And the test is staying at that standard for six months, minus the two week break in the middle.

“They’ll come across a whole range of military challenges; IEDs, road side bombs, down to the challenge of just negotiating through checkpoint after checkpoint with various groups; both pro government and anti government.

“They move in convoys of five every time and it’s about protecting that convoy. It’s not a case of powering through; it’s a case of always being on your guard, applying those tactics you’ve trained.”

The 119 Irish troops now in Syria were deployed five months ago. From the 43rd Infantry Group, they are part of a UN peacekeeping mission on the heavily fortified border between Syria and Israel.

They have joined units from Fiji, India and the Philippines as part of the UN’s disengagement observation force (Undof), maintaining an area of separation between Israel and Lebanon.

The mission has been in place since 1974. The Irish Government agreed to a request from the UN last July to send troops to bolster the mission after other nations withdrew their personnel because of the deteriorating conditions in Syria.