UNDOF (Golan Heights)
Expected Council Action
The Council is expected to extend for six months the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), established in 1974 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria (the mandate expires on 30 June). Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous will likely brief Council members in consultations on the UNDOF report, due on 10 June. The Council is also expected to hold its regular meeting with troop-contributing countries (TCCs) prior to adopting the mandate renewal.
Key Recent Developments
The Council last renewed UNDOF on 19 December 2012, through resolution 2084. In response to the deteriorating situation in the area of operations, the resolution increased the frequency of reporting from every six months to every 90 days. It also strengthened language regarding the safety and security of UN personnel and the need for all parties to respect their obligations under the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement.
On 26 March, Council members met to consider the 19 March UNDOF report (S/2013/174). The report noted an increasingly volatile and challenging operational environment due to the ongoing conflict in Syria. It also reported increased incidents across the ceasefire line, escalating tension between Israel and Syria. The presence of Syrian armed forces carrying out operations against armed elements of the Syrian opposition in the UNDOF area of separation continued and had significantly interfered with the safety of UNDOF personnel and the mission’s freedom of movement. On 27 March, the Council issued a press statement expressing grave concern over continued violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement and calling on all parties to respect the safety and security of UNDOF personnel (SC/10962).
The safety and security of UNDOF peacekeepers has become an increasingly serious problem with Syrian opposition fighters detaining and later releasing UNDOF personnel in three separate incidents on 6 March and then 7 and 15 May. The Council issued press statements condemning each of these detentions (SC/10933 of 6 March; SC/10999 of 7 May; and SC/11011 of 16 May).
UNDOF’s troop contributors have grown alarmed, with Japan and Croatia withdrawing personnel in late 2012 and early 2013, citing the violence in Syria. (At press time it seemed that Fiji would replace the Croatian and Japanese contingents.) In response to the 6 March incident, Council members held consultations with UNDOF TCCs on 22 March. However, this meeting was only held subsequent to requests made on 11 March by Austria and the Philippines for the Security Council to guarantee active dialogue in such evolving situations. Finland sent a similar request on 16 May as one of its nationals was detained in the 15 May incident.
Austria and the Philippines—the two largest of the three remaining TCCs (the third one being India)—have signalled growing discomfort with the increasingly dangerous situation for their troops. The foreign minister of the Philippines recommended withdrawal, explaining that armed opposition groups were holding peacekeepers as human shields against attacks from government forces. (Those detained in the 6 March and 7 May incidents were Filipino peacekeepers.) Austria, which has been an UNDOF TCC since 1974, said it would have to reconsider its deployment to the Golan after the EU decided on 27 May not to renew its arms embargo on Syria. Austria—which has legislative elections in September—has said it is committed to UNDOF but has argued that the result of this EU decision will likely be a more unstable situation for UNDOF, making it difficult for Austria to stay. (Several Austrian peacekeepers were injured when an UNDOF convoy came under fire on 29 November 2012 near the Damascus airport while personnel were rotating out of the mission.)
In recent months, spillover from the conflict in Syria has continued to affect the situation in the Golan. Sporadic incidents continued, such as gunfire from the Syrian side straying across the ceasefire line or Syrian shells crashing into the occupied Golan with Israel returning fire. The most recent incident was on 21 May when Syrian fire hit an Israeli military vehicle and Israel returned fire.
A more significant risk to both UNDOF and regional stability was the 9 May announcement by Hezbollah that it “supported opening a new front [against Israel] on the Syrian Golan”, occupied by Israel since 1967, and the claim that Syria would provide Hezbollah with “game-changing” weapons. Such rhetoric was heightened on 25 May when Hezbollah unambiguously announced its military involvement in Syria on behalf of the government. Analysts note the announcement came on the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000—an attempt by Hezbollah to link its involvement in the Syrian crisis to its resistance against Israel. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Israel has reiterated a neutral policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis with a parallel policy to take action to stop any transfer of strategic weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah.
In a 30 May interview on Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar TV, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said he expected to receive a shipment of Russian anti-aircraft S-300 rockets. This would likely escalate tensions with Israel, which reiterated on the same day that it would not allow the transfer of strategic weapons to Hezbollah.
Israel has reportedly struck inside Syria three times this year. The first such airstrike occurred on 30 January, targeting a convoy of anti-aircraft weaponry, thought to be in transit to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The second and third strikes occurred on 3 and 5 May, targeting warehouses storing surface-to-surface missiles also en route to Hezbollah.
The spillover from the Syrian crisis into UNDOF’s area of operations will continue to be of primary concern for the Council.
A key issue for the UNDOF renewal will be the safety and security of UN personnel given the proximity of UNDOF positions to the areas where there have been clashes between Syrian government forces and the Syrian armed opposition. A related issue is ensuring the integrity of the mission’s operational strength, in light of signals from Austria and the Philippines that they would potentially consider withdrawing troops if the security situation continues to worsen.
A further key issue is the deteriorating relationship between Israel and Syria following the recent Israeli airstrikes and threats by Hezbollah that it would open a new front against Israel on the Golan.
The Council has several options. In particular, the Council could display greater engagement with the TCCs in the lead-up to the mandate renewal, including with over twenty TCCs to the UN Truce Supervision Organization which regularly contributes military observers to UNDOF’s Observer Group Golan.
In the resolution renewing the UNDOF mandate, the Council could:
- simply roll over UNDOF’s mandate for an additional six months;
- expand upon the acknowledgment in resolution 2084 that the Syrian crisis had begun to manifest itself in UNDOF’s area of separation by elaborating on the impact of events in Syria on UNDOF’s ability to operate;
- further strengthen the language to call for the elimination of obstacles to UNDOF’s freedom of movement in the fulfilment of its mandate; and
- further strengthen the language regarding the safety of UNDOF personnel and encourage the mission to continue to identify ways to mitigate risks.
Council members are concerned about the recent exchanges of fire and the escalating tension between Israel and Syria, especially over the issue of arming Hezbollah. The Council has always generally agreed that UNDOF contributes to stability in the region in the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. However, its utility is particularly high now in order to avoid any potential negative security implications for the region. In this regard, most Council members are keen to maintain good relationships with the TCCs to ensure UNDOF’s ability to operate effectively, especially given the troop withdrawals and recent signals from Austria and the Philippines.
Though the US holds the pen on the Golan Heights, the last two resolutions renewing UNDOF (resolutions 2052 and 2084) have been jointly authored with Russia, suggesting consensus on an issue that is increasingly impacted by the highly divisive conflict in Syria. Most Council members strive to keep the Syrian conflict and the Golan Heights as discrete issues—a position that remains difficult in practice.
UN DOCUMENTS ON UNDOF
|Security Council Resolutions|
|19 December 2012 S/RES/2084||Renewed UNDOF for six months and requested reporting every 90 days (previously it had been every six months) and strengthened language regarding the security of UN personnel.|
|31 May 1974 S/RES/350||This resolution established UNDOF.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|16 May 2013 SC/11011||This press statement condemned the detention of three UN military observers.|
|7 May 2013 SC/10999||This press statement condemned the detention of and demanded the immediate release of four UNDOF peacekeepers by armed elements of the Syrian opposition.|
|27 March 2013 SC/10962||This press statement expressed concern over violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement.|
|6 March 2013 SC/10933||This statement condemned the detention of UNDOF peacekeepers by armed elements of the Syrian opposition.|
|Security Council Letters|
|16 May 2013 S/2013/302||This letter from Finland concerned UNDOF TCCs.|
|11 March 2013 S/2013/152||This letter from the Philippines concerned UNDOF TCCs.|
|11 March 2013 S/2013/142||This letter from Austria concerned UNDOF TCCs.|
|19 March 2013 S/2013/174||This was a report of the Secretary-General on UNDOF.|
OTHER RELEVANT FACTS
UNDOF Force Commander
Major General Iqbal Singh Singha (India)
Size and Composition of Mission
917 troops (as of 31 March 2013)
Austria, India and the Philippines
1 July 2012 to 30 June 2013: $45.99 million (A/C.5/66/18)