June 2014 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

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.

The Department of Peacekeeping Operations will brief Council members in consultations on the UNDOF report, due 11 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

UNDOF was faced with a crisis when, on 6 June 2013, armed opposition groups took over the Syrian government’s position at the Quneitra crossing on the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. The clashes that led to the takeover posed such a significant security threat to UN peacekeeping personnel that Austria withdrew its troops—approximately a third of UNDOF’s force—leaving the mission with only about 530 troops.

Since then, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines have increased their contributions so that UNDOF now has 1,260 troops. The mission has spent the last year focusing on risk mitigation and enhanced self-defence capabilities. However, the intensity and number of clashes have increased during this period, and UNDOF’s extremely challenging operational environment hampers its ability to operate as in the past. For example, many observation posts and UN positions have been vacated due to the security situation. Most observation tasks are now carried out from static positions versus mobile patrols. Also, while inspections of military equipment on the Alpha side (the Israeli-occupied Golan) continue on a normal basis, such inspections on the Bravo side (Syria) remain suspended.

When the Council last renewed UNDOF on 18 December 2013, it drew attention to the deteriorating situation on the ground as a result of spillover from the Syrian conflict and strongly condemned several incidents threatening the safety and security of UNDOF personnel. It also noted the increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the UNDOF area of operation and underscored that the theft or destruction of UN weapons, ammunition, vehicles or other assets was unacceptable.

On 26 March, Council members met to consider the 18 March UNDOF report, which detailed continued violations of the ceasefire line. The presence of Syrian armed forces carrying out operations against armed opposition groups in the UNDOF area of separation continued to interfere significantly with the safety of UNDOF personnel and the mission’s freedom of movement (neither Israeli nor Syrian military forces should be in the area of separation under the terms of the 1974 disengagement agreement). Unlike previous reporting periods, this report indicated that UNDOF had begun to observe that the more violent aspects of the conflict were now in evidence in the area of operations, such as the government’s almost daily use of airstrikes, including explosions consistent with the use of barrel bombs, and beheadings of government forces by armed opposition elements.

The forthcoming report is likely to highlight renewed and heavy fighting between Syrian government and opposition forces near the Quneitra crossing, the upward trajectory of ceasefire violations and the increasing number of UN personnel. In that context, risk mitigation continues to be the mission’s top priority. Most self-defensive equipment is in place as is an Irish counter-IED team since March. Syria has not given clearance for the team’s equipment to enter the country.

The report is also likely to feature a description of the most serious violation of the ceasefire since 1974, which significantly escalated tension between Israel and Syria. On 18 March, a roadside bomb on the Alpha side detonated near an Israeli patrol, wounding four. Israel retaliated the next day with airstrikes against Syrian military facilities, killing one person and wounding several.

Israel did not publicly blame Hezbollah—a Lebanese militia, backed by Iran, which has been openly fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime since May 2013—for the roadside bomb, nor did Hezbollah claim responsibility. But comments from the Israeli defence minister, who said that if the Syrian regime collaborates with terrorists striving to hurt Israel, the regime would regret its actions, gave rise to such suspicions as did incidents in the weeks prior. 

On 24 February, Israel struck a Hezbollah position inside Lebanon near the Syrian border. On 5 March, Israel fired at two men near the Alpha line; media reports indicate the two were Hezbollah fighters planting IEDs. Hezbollah vowed to retaliate and subsequently claimed responsibility for a 14 March incident in which an Israeli military vehicle, patrolling south of the Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon, was hit by a roadside bomb.

Another new trend the forthcoming report is likely to identify is the appearance of “black flags” in government positions that have been taken by armed opposition groups. Media reports indicate this is a symbol associated with the global Al-Qaida movement.

Key Issues

The spillover of the Syrian crisis into UNDOF’s area of operations and increased ceasefire violations 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. The fact that armed opposition groups now possess some heavy weapons in the area of operations will also be a key concern.

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. Syria’s refusal to allow counter-IED equipment into the country is a related issue.

Options

In the resolution renewing the UNDOF mandate, the Council could:

Council Dynamics

Council members are concerned about the increasing clashes, both in number and intensity, as well as the escalating tension between Israel and Syria, especially over the issue of 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 further 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.

Though the US holds the pen on the Golan Heights, resolutions renewing UNDOF have been jointly authored with Russia since June 2012, suggesting consensus on an issue that is increasingly affected by the highly divisive conflict in Syria.

UN Documents

Security Council Resolution
18 December 2013 S/RES/2131 This resolution renewed UNDOF for six months.
Secretary-General’s Report
18 March 2014 S/2014/199 This was the UNDOF report, covering 4 December 2013 to 10 March 2014.

Other Relevant Facts

UNDOF Force Commander: Major General Iqbal Singh Singha (India)
Size of Mission: 1,260 troops (as of 31 March 2014)
Troop Contributors: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands