UNDOF (Golan Heights)
Expected Council Action
In September, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous will brief Council members in consultations on the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) report, due 12 September. No outcome is anticipated.
UNDOF was established in 1974 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Its mandate expires on 31 December.
Key Recent Developments
Clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups are ongoing as the civil war in Syria continues to adversely affect UNDOF’s area of operations and increases the possibility of heightened tensions between Israel and Syria. In response, the mission continues to focus on risk mitigation and enhanced self-defence capabilities. UNDOF’s extremely challenging operational environment hampers its ability to operate as in the past. Many observation posts and UN positions have been vacated due to the security situation, and most observation tasks are now carried out from static positions instead of mobile patrols. Meanwhile, inspections of military equipment on the Alpha side (the Israeli-occupied Golan) have mostly continued on a normal basis with some increased restrictions; such inspections on the Bravo side (Syria) remain suspended.
On 17 June, Council members met to consider the 10 June UNDOF report, which detailed continued violations of the ceasefire line. The presence of government 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 Israel nor Syria should have military forces in the area of separation under the terms of the 1974 disengagement agreement). This report indicated that UNDOF had begun to observe that the more violent aspects of the conflict were now evident in its area of operations, including the use of airstrikes by the government, the use of heavy weapons and captured military equipment by armed opposition groups and the appearance of “black flags”—a symbol associated with the al-Nusra Front.
The September report is likely to highlight the ongoing nature of the issues raised in the June report as well as describe several major incidents that have occurred since.
On 2 June, a rocket landed over the Alpha line near an Israeli military position, and Israeli forces retaliated with artillery fire aimed toward the source of the rocket launch in Syria.
On 23 June, Israel targeted nine Syrian army positions with tank fire and air strikes after mortar fire from the Syrian side the previous day killed an Israeli civilian. Israel’s assessment is that most of these incidents are due to errant fire resulting from fighting in Syria. Israel said that armed opposition groups were probably responsible but that its forces fired on Syrian military positions to stress that Syria was responsible for security on its side of the ceasefire line.
On 5 July a UN patrol was hit by a tank round, injuring two peacekeepers and on 7 July another UN patrol was fired upon. Like Israel, the UN considers most of these incidents to be the result of errant cross-fire rather than direct targeting. However, some armed opposition groups tail UN convoys to ease their own travel since government forces know they are not to fire at the UN. This practice, while infrequent, increases the chance that UN personnel will get caught in the cross-fire.
There have also been clashes between the government and armed opposition forces on a strategic plateau near UNDOF observation point 56 (OP56). On 15 July, the government deployed its forces and heavy weaponry extremely close to OP56 and remained there at press time. In response, armed opposition groups have threatened to attack OP56 if the government does not vacate the position. These developments have exposed UNDOF to the very real possibility of suffering collateral damage during clashes. DPKO sent two notes to the Security Council on 18 and 25 July to keep members informed of events on the ground.
On 27 August, armed opposition forces overran government forces at the Quneitra crossing on the Syrian side of the armistice line. Stray mortars from the fighting landed in or near UNDOF positions as well as on the Israeli side of the crossing, injuring one soldier and one civilian. Israel returned fire at two Syrian military positions. Forty-three peacekeepers were detained by armed opposition forces the next morning and Council members issued a press statement in response. There were similar incidents in March and May of 2013 and while peacekeepers were released safely, it did lead to a crisis of confidence and Austria withdrew its troops. Recently, on 23 August, the Philippine government announced it would withdraw its 331 peacekeepers from UNDOF when their tour ends in October due to the security situation.
When the Council last renewed UNDOF on 25 June 2014, it drew attention to the deteriorating situation on the ground as a result of spillover from the Syrian conflict and condemned the use of heavy weapons by government forces and armed opposition groups in the UNDOF area of separation. The Council called on all parties to the conflict to cease military activities throughout Syria, including in the UNDOF area of operations. It also condemned the increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in that area.
Additionally, the Council included new language in the resolution calling on all parties to cooperate with UNDOF operations, including the unimpeded delivery of equipment. (Since March, an Irish counter-IED team has been in place, but Syria has not given clearance for the team’s equipment to enter the country.) Ladsous visited UNDOF on 22-23 June and reassured peacekeepers of the Council’s unanimity in ensuring the mission had the resources to maximise the safety of UNDOF personnel. Ladsous also met with government officials and stressed the importance of getting the counter-IED equipment to UNDOF. Following Ladsous’s visit, Syria cleared a majority of the equipment. However, the delivery of a few crucial components was still outstanding at press time.
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. Military forces are prohibited from entering the area of separation, yet Syria has done so in response to the rebel presence. The fact that armed opposition groups now possess 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 government forces and the armed opposition groups. The fact that Syria has still not allowed all counter-IED equipment into the country is a related issue.
The most likely option is for the Council to receive the report and briefing and take no additional action. Another option would be for the Council to adopt a statement reiterating the need for all parties to exercise restraint, express concern for the safety and security of UNDOF personnel, call for the elimination of obstacles to UNDOF’s freedom of movement and urge Syria to expedite authorisation for any necessary self-defensive equipment for the mission to enter the country.
Council members are concerned about the increasing clashes, both in number and intensity, as well as the tension between Israel and Syria. 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 troop-contributing countries 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 on UNDOF
|Security Council Resolution|
|25 June 2014 S/RES/2163||This resolution renewed UNDOF for six months.|
|10 June 2014 S/2014/401||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: 1,249 troops (as of 30 June 2014)
Troop Contributors: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and Philippines