Heavy machine gun fire lands on Irish Golan base

Irish troops at Camp Ziouani forced to take cover during intense fighting

Archive Video: The 48th Infantry Group departed on April 7th for United Nations duties in Syria. Peter Murtagh has been shadowing them since their training began in February of this year. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Heavy machine gun fire from the Syrian civil war has landed in the Irish base on the Golan Heights and mortar rounds have hit just outside the camp, it has emerged.

The clashes, between Syrian government forces and a coalition of rebel groups, have also resulted in the Israeli defence forces carrying out retaliatory strikes.

Irish troops were forced to take cover repeatedly in their Irish base Camp Ziouani during five days of intense local fighting over an eight-day period up to last week.

In one instance the mortar fire landed so close to the Irish base it shook the ground and the Irish personnel who had taken cover believed the camp had been hit.

The Irish personnel had taken cover – or gone to ground hog – in armoured vehicles and shelters.

Informed sources said fighting in the area had always been “a constant”, but that the scale of what had occurred last week and into last weekend was “absolutely unprecedented”.

Much of the fighting has centred on Quneitra in Syria. It is less than 2km from the Irish camp in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

When any fire from the Syrian civil war has come into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Israelis respond with aircraft strikes on Syrian regime positions.

Last Friday week, June 23rd, a coalition of rebel groups opposed to the Syrian regime launched a new assault styled “Operation Road to Damascus”.

And the exchanges of gun, tank and mortar fire that have ensued have been intense.

Among the groups making up the coalition is Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham, formerly the al-Nusra Front.

It is an al-Qaeda-affiliated group and one with which Irish Defence Forces are well acquainted. Three years ago the group surrounded a group of Filipino peacekeepers serving alongside the Irish on the Golan Heights, having already kidnapped 44 of their Fijian colleagues.

The Irish were called in to save their international colleagues and did so after an exchange of fire with the rebels, that group having killed 20 Syrian troops earlier at a nearby border crossing.

Other rebel factions that make up Operation Road to Damascus include the moderate Free Syrian Army and the Knights of the Golan.

The Irish personnel are serving on the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) monitoring a truce between Syria and neighbouring Israel in place since 1974.

The deployment is unrelated to the civil war in Syria, though that conflict has now spread into the Irish area and right up to their base.

Informed security sources said at no time were the Irish camp or any UN personnel deliberately targeted.

Rather, the fighting was so close to the Irish camp and so intense that many Irish military personnel are concerned about what they perceive as the lack of response from the Government.

Undermined

There has been no publicity about the clashes the Irish are now in the middle of. And some of the personnel are concerned the US government is undermining the UN missions they are serving on, in both Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, at a time when the security situation is already incendiary.

US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley said on a visit to the Middle East last month the UN had “bullied” Israel for too long, welcoming the reduction in funding from the US government to the UN.

There is concern in the Defence Forces that more is not being done on the international stage by the Government to raise the deteriorating security situation.

The concern is that Ireland is not pressing the UN on what is seen as the Americans undermining UNDOF and UNIFIL, involving 600 Irish personnel at present, as the tensions have ramped up.

However, the Irish personnel believe their presence is central to the success of the international mission. And while they believe the Government should be more proactive in trying to calm tensions in the area, they do not believe the situation has reached a stage where their withdrawal should be considered.

The Taoiseach’s office and Department of Foreign Affairs declined to respond to queries from The Irish Times, saying the Department of Defence had been asked to respond.

Asked to comment on the situation, chief of staff of the Defence Forces Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett said: “We make sure our personnel are properly trained and they have the appropriate protection to serve, not just in the Golan Heights but in the 11 other missions where they currently are.

“So it’s critical that the training is of the level required and that the capability that they have in terms of personal protection but also the infrastructure they have is appropriate.”

He added, speaking at Sunday’s National Day of Commemoration ceremony at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin: “I’m confident that we have the force protection and the capability to meet the challenge wherever we serve.”

Minister of State with responsibility for defence Paul Kehoe said the State’s “ability to protect the health and safety of our personnel is my paramount concern when considering any mission”.

He added that the 136 Irish personnel currently serving with UNDOF had the best equipment available to them and had undergone training specific to the mission.

“Unfortunately, no mission is without danger,” he said in a statement in response to queries. “I am assured by the chief of staff that appropriate security measures are in place for Defence Forces personnel serving with UNDOF.”

The mission was a monitoring one designed to report breaches of a disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria.

“As such, all parties must respect the mission mandate,” Mr Kehoe said. “The impact on the UNDOF mission of the conflicts between state and non-state actors in Syria is being closely monitored.”

On Friday June 23rd the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group said say they had repelled an attack by pro-Government forces near the village of Harafa in western Ghouta after being targeted by medium machine guns and mortars.

The following day heavy ground clashes ensued on the same day in the Quneitra area between Assad forces and those groups making up Operation Road to Damascus.

The rebel groups claimed up to 80 Syrian regime troops were killed as a result.

Several unidentified projectiles fired from Syria landed in open ground on the Golan Heights.

And the Israeli military also said several mortars they believed were fired by Assad troops were also fired. The Israelis retaliated when aircraft targeted two Syrian tanks and other Syrian army sites in Quneitra.

Stray mortars

In a third day of fighting last Sunday week more clashes ensued just inside Syrian territory, with further stray mortars landing in Israeli-occupied Golan Heights where the Irish are based.

On Monday, June 26th, Israel reportedly sent reinforcements in the Golan Heights, where they said stray rounds from the fighting in Syria had caused fires and a rocket fired from Syrian territory landed.

Stray rounds, from heavy machine gun fire, hit the ground inside the Irish camp, with troops there ordered to take cover in armoured vehicles and shelters.

Footage also emerged of Assad forces shelling a rebel from at Baath City with heavy artillery.

Two days later, on Wednesday of last week, further rocket fired from Syria landed in Ramat Hagolan on the Golan Heights, with heavy clashes on the ground between Assad forces and anti-regime groups around Quneitra.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited the area, saying it would always belong to Israel.

And when rocket and mortar fire from Syria landed on the Golan Heights during the visit the Israelis responded with a strikes against the positions they claimed the rockets were fired from.

On Friday, June 30th, some of the mortar fire landed so close to the Irish camp, less than 1km away, the Irish personnel believed the camp had been hit.

The following day, Israeli aircraft responded to more rockets and mortars landing in the Golan Heights by targeting Syrian military positions.

There were reports that tanks and artillery positions were hit from those locations the Israelis claimed the Syrian regime were firing at rebels, only for some of that fire to land on the Golan Heights.