Attack on Irish troops in Syria indicates UN has become a target of warring elements

Irish soldiers deployed to monitors the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Syria

Soldiers of the 43rd Infantry Group 
on a march-past at Cathal Brugha barracks today, where Alan Shatter, TD, Minister for Justice, Equality & Defence performed a ministerial review of 43 Infantry Group UNDOF on the eve of its departure for a tour of peacekeeping duty in
departing for the peacekeeping mission in 
the Golan Heights in
September
yria.

Soldiers of the 43rd Infantry Group on a march-past at Cathal Brugha barracks today, where Alan Shatter, TD, Minister for Justice, Equality & Defence performed a ministerial review of 43 Infantry Group UNDOF on the eve of its departure for a tour of peacekeeping duty in departing for the peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights in September yria.

 

The ambushing of Irish troops, with vehicles carrying Defence Forces personnel taking volleys of shots and what looks like a blast from an explosive device in Syria yesterday, has not occurred in recent memory.

This is despite Irish personnel having been deployed to volatile countries such as Chad and Liberia in the past decade.

While Irish personnel were fired at in Chad by rebels in 2008, they were not hit and they returned warning fire.

The 119 Irish troops now in Syria were deployed two months ago after an initial delay of three weeks because the required visas to cross the border from Lebanon into Syria were not in place.

The troops from the 43rd Infantry Group 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 in July to send troops to bolster the mission after other nations withdrew their personnel because of the deteriorating conditions in Syria.

While the UN force predates the civil war in Syria between the government of president Bashar al-Assad and those who want to overthrow him and has no role in or around that conflict, the Irish are finding out now that they will not escape the fallout of that
war.

Yesterday’s attack followed an earlier incident in Syria on November 6th when Irish troops were caught up in civil war crossfire, with artillery shells falling near their convoy of vehicles. And there had been similar incidents, involving small arms cross fire, leading up to that.

At the same time that Irish troops and their families were preparing for the mission, news reports were filled with stories and footage of a chemical attack in the Syrian capital Damascus.

More than 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the conflict and approximately two million Syrians have fled the country in the three years of fighting.

A US-led invasion aimed at overthrowing the regime has been avoided through negotiation and concessions on decommissioning chemical weapons and peace talks are planned for January.

For now, however, the Irish are faced with defending themselves from often unpredictable and heavily armed anti-government elements that appear to see the UN as a legitimate target.

Just prior to their deployment, Minister for Defence Alan Shatter accepted the mission was a difficult and dangerous one but insisted the Irish were well prepared.

“As with any mission, there will be continuing assessment and we know we’re in a very volatile region,” Mr Shatter said.

“We’re in a country with enormous difficulties; there are issues being considered at the UN, there are issues being considered in other states at the moment, and we are obviously very conscious of the volatility of the area.”

While the August chemical attack in Damascus that killed up to 1,400 people had caused global concern, he was not especially fearful that the Irish troops would be caught up in such an attack.

In August, Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore raised his concerns about the safety of the Irish then bound for Syria with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.

“We have been assured by the United Nations that every arrangement that is possible will be put in place to ensure their safety and security. But it is obviously something that we will continue to discuss with the UN,” he said.

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