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 31 December). The Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) will brief Council members in consultations on the UNDOF report due in late November. The Council is also expected to hold its regular meeting with UNDOF troop-contributing countries prior to adopting the mandate renewal.
Key Recent Developments
Resolution 2108, adopted on 27 June, renewed UNDOF. It reflected the deteriorating security situation due to the spillover of the Syrian conflict into the Golan, jeopardising the integrity of the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. The resolution included stronger language on UNDOF’s risk mitigation and enhanced self-defence capabilities, reflecting the importance of peacekeeping personnel’s safety.
This focus on safety came at a time of potential crisis for UNDOF. The worsening security situation had caused Austria, Croatia and Japan to withdraw their troops from UNDOF earlier this year. Fiji, Ireland, the Netherlands and Nepal have since contributed troops, and currently UNDOF’s force strength is 1,218—200 more troops than at the same time last year. Meanwhile, DPKO’s request for enhanced defensive equipment has largely been approved by Israel and Syria. However, there remains a hold on advanced defensive arms and better communication systems. Both parties fear such equipment might fall into the hands of armed rebel groups.
On 19 September, Council members met to consider the 12 September UNDOF report. The report noted that the ceasefire between Israel and Syria was generally maintained although UNDOF was operating in an increasingly volatile environment. The report also detailed violations of the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria, such as the presence of the Syrian military and its equipment in the area of separation and retaliatory fire by Israel, largely in response to errant mortar fire by the Syrian forces. (Under the terms of the 1974 agreement, there should be no military forces in the area of separation other than those of UNDOF.)
Clashes between Syrian forces and the armed opposition, particularly shelling, have been ongoing. Consequently, there have been security incidents between Israel and Syria. On 12 September, hundreds of armed rebels attacked and temporarily took control of two Syrian military positions. Several artillery rounds and one tank shell landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel did not retaliate. On 9 October, two mortars hit an Israeli military post, injuring one soldier, and Israel returned fire. On 21 October, artillery rounds crossed the ceasefire line. Israel did not retaliate.
UNDOF acts as a liaison between Israel and Syria, which has contributed to ensuring that flare-ups between the parties do not escalate. However, more recently such liaison capacity has been stretched, in particular due to the mission’s lack of Arabic speakers, to facilitate contacts with a proliferation of armed rebel groups.
Armed rebels have planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on roadsides in UNDOF’s area of operations to hinder the movement of Syrian government forces. This has been identified as a major risk to peacekeeping personnel’s safety, and Ireland is considering providing specialised counter-IED teams to the mission.
UNDOF convoys have been forcibly stopped at Syrian military and rebel checkpoints, impacting freedom of movement. UNDOF personnel and observation posts have been repeatedly exposed to stray fire and warning shots. The mission has also experienced attempts to seize vehicles, weapons and equipment. On 16 October, Syrian forces fired on a UN vehicle. On 1 November, armed rebels fired at and temporarily detained an UNDOF convoy. On 5 November, Syrian forces fired directly in front of an UNDOF convoy but did not hit it. On 6 November, an UNDOF convoy was caught in crossfire between armed rebels and Syrian forces. When returning to base, the convoy came under fire again. There were no injuries to UNDOF personnel in these incidents.
Another potential risk to both UNDOF and regional stability is Hezbollah’s claims that it would open a new front against Israel in the Syrian Golan and that Syria would provide Hezbollah with “game-changing” weapons. Israel has maintained 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. The most recent Israeli airstrike in Syria was on 31 October, targeting surface-to-surface missiles located at a Syrian military base in Latakia that Israel believed to be en route to Hezbollah. Similar airstrikes in Syria occurred on 30 January, 3 and 5 May and 5 July.
The spillover of the Syrian crisis into UNDOF’s area of operations will continue to be of primary concern to the Council. Syrian military forces are prohibited from entering the area of separation, but they have nonetheless done so in response to the rebel presence.
A continuing key issue 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 forces and the armed rebels.
A further issue is the impact of Israeli airstrikes in Syria and threats made by Hezbollah that it would open a new front against Israel in the Golan. However, neither Israel nor Syria seems interested in escalating the situation into a serious confrontation. Furthermore, the recent thaw in diplomatic relations between the US and Iran underscores that Hezbollah’s threat to Israel from the Golan may continue to be rhetorical rather than posing an imminent or concrete risk.
The Council has limited options when renewing UNDOF, the parameters of which are strictly determined by the 1974 Disengagement Agreement. Any substantial change to the mandate would require the very unlikely scenario of Israel and Syria re-negotiating the 1974 agreement.
The Council could simply roll over UNDOF’s mandate for an additional six months. The Council also has the option to strengthen language:
- calling for the elimination of obstacles to UNDOF’s freedom of movement;
- calling for the necessary capacity to efficiently execute UNDOF’s liaison tasks, in particular the need for Arabic speakers; and
- underscoring the importance of the safety of UNDOF personnel and encouraging the mission to continue to identify ways to mitigate risks.
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 further potential negative security implications for the region. In this regard, most Council members are keen to demonstrate to the troop-contributing countries their commitment to UNDOF’s ability to operate effectively and to the safety of its personnel.
Though in recent years the US has been the penholder on the Golan Heights, the last three resolutions renewing UNDOF were drafted jointly by the US and Russia, demonstrating consensus on an issue that is affected by the highly divisive conflict in Syria. Council members prefer to keep the Syrian conflict and the Golan Heights as discrete issues.
|Security Council Resolutions|
|27 June 2013 S/RES/2108||This was a resolution adopted on 27 June 2013 renewing UNDOF for six months.|
|12 September 2013 S/2013/542||This was the Secretary General’s report on the UN Disengagement Observer Force.|
Other Relevant Facts
UNDOF Force Commander: Major General Iqbal Singh Singha (India)
Size and Composition of Mission: 1,218 troops (as of 31 October 2013)
Troop Contributors: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines