UN demands release of abducted peacekeepers

Clashes between Syrian troops and fundamentalists escalate on border with Israel

Israeli soldiers watch the Syrian side of the border near the Quneitra crossing point between Syria and Israel yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Atef Safadi

Israeli soldiers watch the Syrian side of the border near the Quneitra crossing point between Syria and Israel yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Atef Safadi

 

The UN Security Council has demanded the immediate and unconditional release of abducted peacekeepers and the withdrawal of insurgents from UN observer force positions in the separation zone between Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan.

The council intervened as clashes between Syrian troops and radical fundamentalists escalated and Israel responded to a wayward mortar strike in the Golan by firing a surface-to-surface missile at a Syrian army position.

Tensions along this sensitive frontier have risen since last week when al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies seized control of parts of the UN held zone and abudcted 45 Fijian peacekeeper soldiers.

Deal for release

After a two-day siege mounted by Jabhat, 70 Filippino troops escaped capture. Qatar is said to be trying to secure the Fijians’ freedom.

According to Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights, Jabhat’s long-term aims appear to be to drive the Syrian army from this highly sensitive area and expel the 1,200-strong UN Disengagement Observer force.

However, the Syrian army remains ensconsed in the Golan and the UN force in the separation zone. While some governments have threatened to withdraw contingents, Irish troops are expected to remain.

For the time being, Jabhat is seeking to reassert its relevance in the Syrian conflict and outclass al-Qaeda’s rival, the Islamic State (IS), by launching an audacious campaign that risks embroiling the Israeli military in the Syrian conflict.

The IS has captured the attention of the world powers by grabbing vast swaths of land in northern Iraq, driving out non-Sunni Arab minorities, decapitating two US citizens and threatening to behead a Briton.

By staging high-profile operations, Jabhat seeks to secure recruits, financial backers and arms providers. In recent months, fighters from small, radical, but cash and weapons poor, groups have gravitated to the rapidly expanding ranks of the IS which is flush with funds and heavily armed.

Jabhat is determined to recoup losses sustained over the past year when the group was evicted by the IS from Syria’s north central city of Raqqa, now the IS capital.

Seized stretches of border

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Jabhat is also determined to reassert its presence along the Lebanon-Syria border and retake a rear base in the Lebanese Sunni frontier town of Arsal.

The group kidnapped 29 Lebanese soldiers, beheaded one and freed five, keeping 23, the majority Shias. Jabhat is as ready as IS to use decapitation to capture local, regional and international attention.

Jabhat’s ultimate aim is to succeed the IS, now under attack by US aircraft, as the leading radical fundamentalist group in Syria – and perhaps Iraq.