Irish troops need backing and clarity in Undof role

Irish personnel must be protected as Israel and Syria flout UN rules in the Golan Heights and soldiers are put in danger


On July 16th, the Government approved its most dangerous military deployment since taking office, agreeing to send a mechanised infantry company to the UN Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights in Syria.

Undof’s task – the maintenance of a demilitarised zone flanked by two areas of limited military activity agreed by Syria and Israel as part of the ceasefire ending the 1973 Yom Kippur war – has been severely complicated by the civil war that has gripped Syria for over two years.

The more than 100 Irish troops deploying to Syria will be flying into a very “hot” conflict zone. If the last months are anything to go by, Irish soldiers will almost certainly come under attack.

They require two things to accomplish their mission and protect their lives: political support and clarity on when they can open fire.

The decision by the Government to send troops is a courageous one, coming in the wake of the withdrawal of contingents by Japan, Croatia and, most recently, Austria. After a sustained attack in the early hours of June 6th by a Syrian rebel group on Undof positions near the town of Quneitra, the Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann declared that Austrian soldiers faced “an uncontrollable and direct threat” and recalled his country’s 377 Undof personnel.

The events of June 6th are not an isolated incident: Undof personnel have repeatedly come under fire, had their observation positions overrun and equipment looted or destroyed.

Disarmed and kidnapped
Worse, on several occasions, soldiers were disarmed and kidnapped by Syrian rebels. Insurgent groups such as the al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade are responsible for most of the most egregious attacks. Not only have Undof personnel been hurt, but unarmed Syrian military liaison officers have been abducted by rebels from Undof positions and then executed.

Other troop contributors are threatening to quit the mission. At the end of June, the Filipino government informed UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that it would withdraw its 341 peacekeepers if the UN could not provide better protection for its troops.

Manila was alarmed by the Austrian withdrawal and wanted the deployment of another, better-armed European contingent to Undof.

Sweden thought long and hard but ultimately said no. The Swedish government wanted to deploy as part of a larger, well-armed Nordic contingent – but the Danish, Norwegian and Finnish governments were not convinced.

The limited Irish deployment, together with new contingents from Fiji and Nepal, might be enough to keep the Filipino contingent in Undof – at least for now. Irish troops will come under a lot of pressure in the force.

The Irish contingent is the most capable in the mission and will face repeated calls for assistance.

Undof, a poorly resourced mission designed to prevent inter-state conflict, finds itself caught in the middle of a vicious civil war – why then should Irish troops deploy to the Golan Heights at all?

The answer is that without Undof things would be a lot worse. President Bashar al-Assad, for all his brutality, knows that waging war against Israel would mean almost certain punitive action by the United States and its allies. Occasional shots might be exchanged as both jostle for advantage but outright conflict must be avoided.

Undof is the indispensable blue wedge that has kept Israel and Syria from renewing hostilities. And without it, the Israeli Defence Forces would move directly into contact with Islamist rebels as well as Syrian government forces.

Many rebel groups would love nothing more than to lure Israel into a conflict, which in turn would bolster their support and funding from overseas.

Despite the subsequent Austrian withdrawal, the attempt by Syrian rebels to occupy Undof positions on June 6th highlighted the enduring importance of the force’s mission.

When Syrian government forces moved tanks into the area to engage these rebel forces, the IDF informed Undof that it would launch an attack if the Syrians did not withdraw.

The movement of tanks was clearly prohibited under the ceasefire agreement of 1974 and subsequent UN resolutions. After a few frantic hours of Undof mediation, the Syrian tanks withdrew from the area. Israeli military intervention was avoided, but only just.

But Undof needs a lot more help if it is to prevent serious escalation in the Golan Heights.

First, the mission needs greater clarity on its rules of engagement against forces that intend to do it harm. The mission is under attack and force protection is a priority. Poorly disciplined rebel groups such as the al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade should be left in no doubt that the use of force against Irish or other Undof personnel will be met with force. Traditional unarmed observation is no longer possible in the face of repeated attacks and kidnapping. Undof needs the same unambiguous rules of engagement as many peacekeeping missions to protect the lives of its soldiers.

Second, the UN and the EU must prioritise Undof’s mission and the protection of its personnel in its dialogue with the Syrian government, rebel movements and their respective sponsors. Syria and Israel are increasingly ignoring UN security council resolutions limiting both sides’ military presence in areas on the Golan Heights.

Game of escalation
Both countries have repeatedly denied Undof personnel access to areas covered by Undof’s mandate. They are playing a dangerous game of escalation. Both should be reminded that it is in nobody’s interest except religious extremists for another war to break out between Syria and Israel.

The problem is that Israel, Syria and the international community have taken Undof for granted for too long. The Government should strongly make the case at the UN and at the EU for Undof to get the political and military assistance it needs.

Ed Burke is an associate researcher at the Foundation for International Relations

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