March 2015 Monthly Forecast

Posted 27 February 2015
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MIDDLE EAST

UNDOF (Golan Heights)

Expected Council Action

In late March, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) will brief Council members in consultations on the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). A report on the mission’s activities is due on 18 March.

UNDOF was established in 1974 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Its current mandate expires on 30 June.

Key Recent Developments

Due to the escalating spillover of the Syrian civil war into UNDOF’s area of operations, the mission—which has experienced relative calm for most of its life—has significantly altered how it carries out its mandate.

The Council adopted resolution 2192 on 18 December 2014 renewing the UNDOF mandate for six months. It was the first resolution adopted following the relocation of the majority of UNDOF peacekeepers on 15 September 2014 from the Bravo (Syrian) side to the Alpha (Israeli) side of the area of operations after the Al-Qaida affiliated Al-Nusra Front overran Syrian government forces last August in Quneitra—a Syrian district close to the Israeli-occupied Golan. During this increase in hostilities, Al-Nusra detained 117 peacekeepers, all of whom later escaped safely or were released. Some peacekeepers are still deployed on the Syrian side at Mt. Hermon and at two other positions that are extremely close to the Israeli side of the armistice line. The UNDOF command is now headquartered in Damascus.

The upcoming UNDOF report is expected to include information on the 18 January Israeli airstrike that targeted two vehicles in Quneitra. (The report will not attribute responsibility but will describe how UNDOF observed two drones flying from the Alpha side that crossed the ceasefire line and how, several minutes after the drones disappeared from sight, it observed smoke and the drones returning to the Alpha side.)

The strike killed an Iranian general and six senior fighters from Hezbollah, the Tehran-backed Lebanese militia. This incident was unlike previous Israeli airstrikes in Syria that destroyed Hezbollah weaponry en route to Lebanon from Iran. It seems this time the target was Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Mohammed Allahdadi and not a weapons convoy, and led to retaliatory attacks between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Syria and in southern Lebanon.

On 27 January, rockets from a Syrian military position were launched into the Israeli-occupied Golan, and Israel returned fire the next day. Israel said that it will exercise self-defence when faced with the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah threat.

On 28 January, two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper serving in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon were killed as Hezbollah traded fire with Israel in the Sheba’a Farms area (a disputed area between Syria and Lebanon that is occupied by Israel). These attacks were apparently related to the incidents in the adjacent Golan Heights. (See the Lebanon brief in this Monthly Forecast for further details.)

On 30 January, the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said that the Golan and south Lebanon were now a single front against Israel. However, other analysts peg Hezbollah’s presence in the Golan to strategic goals that have little to do with an aggressive posture towards Israel. The first is to assist the Syrian government in retaking the restive areas south of Damascus from mainstream opposition fighters in Darra and from Al-Nusra in Quneitra, as demonstrated in an 11 February offensive by government and Hezbollah forces. Second, Hezbollah suspects Israel of aiding Al-Nusra in the south. For more than a year, UNDOF has observed the transfer of people and cargo trucks across the ceasefire line as well as Israeli forces interacting with members of armed groups. Israel characterises these transfers and interactions as humanitarian in nature. Nevertheless, Hezbollah wants to secure the Golan against any perceived cooperation between Israel and Al-Nusra and avoid any possible Al-Nusra infiltration into Hezbollah’s stronghold in neighbouring southern Lebanon.

Mt. Hermon straddles this border area between Syria and Lebanon, and UNDOF has observed increased movements between Lebanon and the Golan since the Syrian crisis began. Mt. Hermon’s location makes it a strategic position requiring a sustained UNDOF presence. If UNDOF were to abandon it, there would be unimpeded access across the border.

Key Issues

The spillover of the Syrian crisis into UNDOF’s area of operations and escalating ceasefire violations will be of primary concern to the Council.

Given the deteriorating security situation in the Golan, the full return of UNDOF to the Syrian side seems unlikely in the foreseeable future, significantly constraining the mission’s ability to carry out its monitoring tasks. In that respect, there are two key issues for the Council:

  • whether new technologies, such as unmanned, unarmed aerial vehicles or satellite imagery, should be used to carry out observation tasks; and
  • whether UNDOF should be allowed more mobility for its patrolling tasks on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line.

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. This would be an especially difficult challenge to regional security and the 1974 disengagement agreement.

Options

UNDOF was established as a Syria-based mission and how it operates is subject to the 1974 disengagement agreement and any changes require agreement by Israel and Syria. The majority of personnel are now based on the Alpha (Israeli) side which has restricted the mission’s mobility and operational capacity. DPKO is in active conversations with both parties on ways it can continue its observation tasks. An option for the Council could be to adopt a statement:

  • supporting DPKO’s efforts;
  • reiterating the need for all parties to exercise restraint;
  • urging Israel and Syria to allow the use of new technologies so UNDOF could better fulfil its mandate in the current challenging security environment (both parties have been reluctant to agree to this); and
  • urging Israel to allow UNDOF to establish more positions west of the ceasefire line on the Alpha side, given the mission’s limited mobility there.
Council Dynamics

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, which has been tremendously exacerbated by the overt presence of Hezbollah and senior members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

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. For that reason, most Council members are keen to maintain good relationships with troop-contributing countries to ensure UNDOF’s ability to operate, even in its currently constrained configuration.

Though the US is the penholder on the Golan Heights, resolutions renewing UNDOF have been jointly authored with Russia since June 2012, suggesting consensus on an aspect of the Syria file that is otherwise defined by highly divisive P5 dynamics.

UN Documents

Security Council Resolutions
18 December 2014 S/RES/2192 This was a resolution renewing UNDOF for six months.
Security Council Letters
28 January 2015 S/2015/65 Was from Israel regarding a rocket attack from Syria.
Secretary-General’s Reports
1 December 2014 S/2014/859 This was the report of the Secretary-General on UNDOF.

Other Relevant Facts

(as of 31 January 2015)

Force Commander: Major General Purna Chandra Thapa (Nepal)

Size of Mission: 930 troops

Troop Contributors: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands