UNDOF (Golan Heights)
Expected Council Action
In December the Council is expected to renew the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) for a period of six months. UNDOF was established in May 1974 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria.
The Department of Peacekeeping Operations is expected to brief the Council in consultations on the Secretary-General’s UNDOF report, also due in December. The report will likely detail violent incidents that have occurred in the UNDOF area of operations in two broad categories: clashes between the Syrian Armed Forces and the armed opposition and exchanges of fire between Israel and Syria.
The mandate of UNDOF expires on 31 December.
Key Recent Developments
The Security Council renewed UNDOF’s mandate on 27 June through resolution 2052, in which the Council also noted that events elsewhere in Syria have started to manifest themselves in the area of responsibilities of UNDOF.
On 19 July, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak spoke to reporters during a visit to an Israeli position in the Golan Heights, saying that Israeli forces were prepared to prevent an influx of Syrian refugees into the Israeli-controlled areas of the Golan Heights. “If we have to stop waves of refugees, we will stop them,” he said. Nonetheless, spill-over from the Syrian crisis continued and on 19 July as many as 500 Syrian soldiers and fifty vehicles were reported by news media to have crossed into the area of separation between Syrian and Israeli forces. The incident prompted the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to begin reinforcing the border in the region.
In the October quarterly debate on the situation in the Middle East, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman noted that UNDOF had observed “an exchange of weapons between groups crossing the border into Syria from Lebanon” on 27 September as well as “deadly incidents involving armed elements from Lebanon and Syria” in the UNDOF area of operations on 20 and 29 September.
Feltman also related a 9 October incident in which Syrian government forces fired at two members of Observer Group Golan in a clearly marked UN vehicle. (Observer Group Golan consists of unarmed military observers from the UN Truce Supervision Organization attached to UNDOF.) According to Feltman, Syrian authorities are investigating the incident.
Recent weeks have seen further military incursions by Syria. On 3 November, UNDOF observed four Syrian tanks inside the area of separation. Syria subsequently alleged that it had received approval from UNDOF for the operation. The Secretary-General’s spokesperson denied the possibility that UNDOF had given such approval to the Syrian forces, noting, “the mission does not have the mandate or the authority to approve military operations in the Area of Separation.”
On 8 November shells fired by Syrian government forces landed in areas of the Golan Heights administered by Israel. The US circulated a draft press statement to Council members on 9 November condemning repeated Syrian violations of the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement, especially the 3 and 8 November incidents, but failed to achieve the consensus necessary to have a press statement issued. On 11 November, additional shelling landing near an Israeli military post was met by a “warning shot” returned by the IDF. The Secretary-General issued a statement the same day expressing deep concern over the potential for escalation and calling on Israel and Syria to exercise restraint. On 12 November, Israeli tanks responded to continued shelling, hitting the Syrian artillery responsible. Since then, the situation appears to have calmed somewhat: on 15 November, Israel did not respond to a stray Syrian bullet that struck near an IDF outpost, causing no injuries. Nonetheless, on 17 November violence flared again: small arms fire from Syria directed at Israeli forces prompted renewed shelling by the IDF that reportedly killed three Syrian soldiers.
On 29 November an UNDOF convoy carrying troops scheduled to rotate out of the mission came under fire in the vicinity of Damascus International Airport, which reportedly closed the same day due to military encounters between Syrian government and opposition armed forces. At least four UNDOF personnel were injured.
The key issue regarding the Golan Heights in December is the continuing spill-over of the Syrian conflict into both the area of separation and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. According to the Israeli Minister of Defence, Syrian rebel forces currently control nearly all the villages within the area of separation. Syrian civilian authorities are responsible for administering and policing the area of separation, under the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement between Syrian and Israeli Forces, which prohibits military forces from entering the area.
A closely related key issue is incursions into the area of separation by Syrian government forces, also in violation of the 1974 Agreement, which have the potential to destabilise the long-standing cease-fire between Israel and Syria.
An additional issue is the safety and security of UN personnel, given the proximity of UNDOF positions to the areas in which repeated recent clashes have been reported between Syrian government forces and the Syrian armed opposition. The incident on 29 November near Damascus International Airport further demonstrates the vulnerability of UNDOF personnel beyond the mission’s area of operations.
The Council has several options on the Golan Heights in December. It could:
- simply roll over UNDOF’s mandate for an additional six months;
- expand upon the acknowledgment in resolution 2052 that the Syrian crisis had begun to manifest itself in UNDOF’s area of operations by elaborating on the impact of events in Syria on UNDOF’s ability to operate;
- strengthen the language of the mandate and renewal resolution to call for the elimination of obstacles to UNDOF’s freedom of movement in the fulfilment of its mandate and to express concern regarding the safety of UNDOF personnel; or
- request additional reporting and monitoring on the part of the Secretary-General.
Council members agree upon the utility of UNDOF in contributing to stability in the region in lieu of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. (Regarding the Israel-Syria peace track, the last attempt at talks was mediated by Turkey in early 2008. Turkey suspended its efforts after Israeli incursions into Gaza in December 2008. Previously, the last attempt was in 2000.)
The US is the lead on the Golan Heights in the Council, however in the context of the Syrian crisis, the renewals in June and December 2011 were characterised by competing drafts circulated by Russia and the US. To avoid repeating this situation, during the most recent renewal in June 2012 Russia and the US jointly submitted the draft resolution. At press time it was unclear which scenario would prevail in December, whether the US would hold the pen, whether another joint draft would be submitted or whether competing draft resolutions might be circulated to the Council. The draft press statement circulated by the US in November responding to Syrian incursions into the area of separation (in particular the 3 and 8 November incidents) did not achieve consensus following a Russian request for language suggesting “grave concern” rather than “condemnation” of the incident. Some members found the change unacceptable. It is possible that similar dynamics will emerge during negotiations leading up to UNDOF’s renewal.
The situation on the ground will also continue to impact Council members’ positions in the coming weeks and will affect the discussions that occur around the renewal. Some Council members may want to take the opportunity of the UNDOF renewal to address the spill-over from the Syrian crisis, while others may be concerned about allowing discussions or pronouncements to range beyond the narrow focus of UNDOF’s mandate. Divisions on the Council regarding approaches to the Syrian crisis may also manifest themselves in Council approaches to UNDOF, as the impact of the crisis on the Golan Heights continues to grow.
UN DOCUMENTS ON UNDOF
|Security Council Resolutions|
|27 June 2012 S/RES/2052||Extended UNDOF for six months and noted that events elsewhere in Syria had started to manifest themselves in UNDOF’s area of responsibilities.|
|31 May 1974 S/RES/350||This resolution established UNDOF.|
|22 October 1973 S/RES/338||This resolution decided that, concurrently with a ceasefire, peace negotiations should start in the context of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.|
|22 November 1967 S/RES/242||This was a British sponsored compromise between the three-power and US drafts, calling on all parties to end territorial claims, respect sovereignty, and for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories. This resolution affirmed that the establishment of just and lasting peace in the Middle East should include the application of certain principles inter alia.|
|Security Council Letters|
|15 August 2012 S/2012/644||This letter from Syria to the Council contained the Syrian response to the contents of the 19 July letter from Israel.|
|19 July 2012 S/2012/566||This letter from Israel to the Council concerned Syrian incursions into the area of separation.|
|19 June 2012 S/2012/459||This letter took note of the Secretary-General’s letter of 15 June.|
|15 June 2012 S/2012/458||This letter from the Secretary-General appointed Maj. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha as the new Head of Mission and UNDOF Force Commander.|
|5 June 2012 S/2012/403||Was the Secretary-General’s report covering the period January to June 2012.|
|30 May 1974 S/11302/Add.1||This report contained the Agreement on Disengagement between Syrian and Israeli Forces.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|15 October 2012 S/PV.6847||This was a quarterly debate on the Middle East.|
Other Relevant Facts
UNDOF Force Commander
Maj. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha (India)
Size and Composition of Mission (as of 31 October 2012)
1,034 troops assisted by 76 military observers of the UN Truce Supervision Organisation’s Observer Group Golan
Troop contributors: Austria, Croatia, India, Japan and the Philippines
1 July 2012 to 30 June 2013: $48 million (A/C.5/66/17)