UNDOF (Golan Heights)
Expected Council Action
The Council is expected to extend for six months the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which expires on 31 December. A representative of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations will brief Council members in consultations on the UNDOF report, due on 3 December. The Council will also hold its regular meeting with troop-contributing countries prior to adopting the mandate renewal.
Key Recent Developments
Due to the escalating spillover of the Syrian civil war into its area of operations, UNDOF—which was established in 1974 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria and has experienced relative calm for most of its operational life—has significantly altered how it carries out its mandate.
The most recent series of events began on 27 August when the Al-Qaida affiliated Al-Nusra Front overran Syrian government forces at the Quneitra crossing on the Syrian side of the armistice line. The group detained 45 Fijian peacekeepers and encircled 72 Filipino peacekeepers. On 30 August, UNDOF’s rapid reaction force safely extracted 32 Filipino peacekeepers from a surrounded position, and the remaining 40 Filipino peacekeepers escaped to safety later that night during a UN-mediated ceasefire.
The 45 detained Fijian peacekeepers were not released until 11 September. On 2 September, Al-Nusra set out a series of demands for the release of the peacekeepers that included the group’s removal from the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida sanctions list, delivery of humanitarian aid to areas around Damascus besieged by the government and a prisoner exchange. While media reports indicate none of the group’s demands were met, a video was posted on 10 September in which Fijian peacekeepers declared that Al-Nusra had not harmed them in any way. The video statement was reportedly a condition for their release the next day.
There were similar incidents in March and May of 2013 that led Austria to withdraw its troops, Croatia and Japan had already previously withdrawn due to the worsening security situation. But the incident in August was unprecedented for the mission, both in terms of the number of affected peacekeepers and the duration of their detention. The Philippines withdrew its 331 peacekeepers from UNDOF in September.
Following the release of the peacekeepers, UNDOF began to relocate personnel and critical equipment from the Bravo (Syrian) side to the Alpha (Israeli) side of the area of operations. The pace of this relocation was accelerated when clashes intensified following the release of the Fijian peacekeepers, leaving no government forces between Al-Nusra and UNDOF positions. The relocation was safely completed on 15 September.
During this dramatic series of events, Council members were briefed by Ladsous on 3 September and were kept apprised of the situation through a series of confidential notes from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Over the course of several weeks, Council members released three press statements condemning the detention and siege of UN peacekeepers and demanding their immediate and unconditional release and safe passage.
On 17 September, Council members were briefed in consultations by Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmund Mulet on the periodic UNDOF report and on the relocation of UNDOF personnel and equipment. On 19 September, the Council adopted a presidential statement requesting the Secretary-General to update the Council within 30 days on the steps necessary to maintain UNDOF’s ability to carry out its mandate while adjusting the mission’s posture to minimise risk to personnel.
On 9 October the Council held a public briefing by UN force commanders during which Major General Iqbal Singh Singha of UNDOF was invited to brief on how traditional mandates are carried out in a changed politico-military environment. Singha reported that the focus of the mission’s activities was now on the Alpha side of the ceasefire line. He informed the Council that, in response to the 19 September presidential statement, DPKO had sent a high-level team to assess the mission. The DPKO team also consulted with Israel and Syria on feasible options for modifying UNDOF’s mandate given the challenging security environment and the relocation of the majority of personnel.
Singha reported that some peacekeepers continued to be deployed on the Bravo (Syrian side) at Mt. Hermon and two other positions that are extremely close to the Alpha line. UNDOF’s former headquarters, Camp Faouar, was one of the vacated positions on the Bravo side, and Singha said the command is now being split between a smaller element in Damascus and the larger Camp Ziouani on the Alpha side.
On 20 October, Mulet briefed Council members in consultations, following up the 19 September presidential statement. Discussions included the possible use of new technologies, such as unmanned, unarmed aerial vehicles or satellite imagery, to carry out monitoring tasks without exposing personnel to risk. Mulet said that both Israel and Syria were reluctant to grant authorisation for the use of such technologies. He also reported that UNDOF would review the security situation in the area of separation in cooperation with Syrian authorities on a quarterly basis, however it seemed the full return of UNDOF to the Bravo side seemed unlikely in the foreseeable future.
The spillover of the Syrian crisis into UNDOF’s area of operations and escalating ceasefire violations will be of primary concern to the Council.
Another key issue for the Council will be how the UNDOF mandate may need to be adjusted when it is renewed in December, given that a majority of its personnel is now located on the Alpha (Israeli) side, which significantly constrains the mission’s ability to carry out its monitoring tasks. A related issue is whether new technologies should be used to carry out such tasks so as to not expose personnel to risk.
Regarding risk mitigation, an issue is how the safety of remaining peacekeepers on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line will be guaranteed. Mt. Hermon is strategically important for Israel, and if there were no UNDOF security presence there, Israel might feel compelled to man the position itself. Such a scenario would be an especially difficult challenge to the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement.
It may be difficult to alter the UNDOF mandate since it derives from the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria, and any changes would require the consent of both parties and the cooperation of the remaining troop-contributing countries. Therefore, the most likely option is to simply roll over UNDOF’s mandate for an additional six months.
In addition, the Council could also call on both parties to allow the use of new technologies so UNDOF could better fulfil its mandate in the current challenging security environment.
Council members are concerned about the increasing clashes in the area of operations, both in number and intensity, as well as the tension between Israel and Syria along the armistice line. 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 liaison function is particularly important 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.
Though the US holds the pen on the Golan Heights, since June 2012, resolutions renewing UNDOF have been jointly authored with Russia, suggesting consensus on an issue that is increasingly affected by the highly divisive conflict in Syria.
|Security Council Resolutions|
|25 June 2014 S/RES/2163||This resolution renewed UNDOF for six months.|
|Security Council Presidential Statements|
|19 September 2014 S/PRST/2014/19||Requested the Secretary-General to update the Council within 30 days on the steps necessary to maintain UNDOF’s ability to carry out its mandate while adjusting the mission’s posture to minimise risk to personnel.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|3 September 2014 SC/11548||This press statement concerned the Al-Nusra Front detained 45 Fijian peacekeepers in the Golan Heights.|
|30 August 2014 SC/11546||Condemned continuing attacks on UNDOF positions. Condemned the detention of 44 Fijian peacekeepers by armed opposition groups and 40 Filipino peacekeepers surrounded by armed opposition groups and demanded their immediate and unconditional release as well as safe passage. Welcomed news that 32 Filipino peacekeepers were extricated to safety.|
|28 August 2014 SC/11540||Condemned the detention of 43 UNDOF peacekeepers by armed opposition groups and demanded their immediate and unconditional release.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|9 October 2014 S/PV.7275||This was a briefing on peacekeeping operations by force commanders from MONUSCO, MINUSMA and UNDOF.|
|12 September 2014 S/2014/665||This was the report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force for the period from 29 May to 3 September 2014.|
Other Relevant Facts
UNDOF Force Commander: Major General Iqbal Singh Singha (India)
Size and Composition of Mission: 926 troops (as of 30 September 2014)
Troop Contributors: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands