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 30 June. A representative of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) will brief Council members in consultations on the UNDOF report, due on 11 June.
The Council will hold its regular meeting with troop-contributing countries prior to adopting the mandate renewal. Separately, the Council will be briefed in June by force commanders, including the head of the UN Truce Supervision Organization, which provides UNDOF with military observers.
UNDOF was established in 1974 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria.
Key Recent Developments
Due to the spillover of the Syrian civil war into UNDOF’s area of operations, the mission has significantly altered how it carries out its mandate. The majority of UNDOF peacekeepers relocated from the Bravo (Syrian) side to the Alpha (Israeli) side of the ceasefire line in September 2014, shortly after Al-Nusra Front overran Syrian government forces in Quneitra—a Syrian district close to the Israeli-occupied Golan. Some peacekeepers are still deployed on the Syrian side at Mt. Hermon, and the UNDOF command has moved its headquarters from Camp Faouar in the area of operation to Damascus.
The civil war in Syria continues to adversely affect UNDOF’s ability to function and increases the possibility of escalating tensions not only between Israel and Syria but also between Israel and Lebanon due to the overt presence in the Golan of Hezbollah—the Tehran-backed Lebanese militia fighting on the side of the Syrian regime.
The forthcoming Secretary-General’s report is expected to describe the ongoing clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups and between competing armed groups in the area of separation. The presence of Syrian armed forces and heavy weapons in the mission’s area of separation, Syrian airstrikes, Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire over the ceasefire line are all violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement. (No military forces other than those of UNDOF are allowed in the area of separation.) Errant fire from these clashes lightly injured UN personnel in two separate incidents on 1 and 4 May.
The report is also expected to describe the 26 April Israeli airstrike that killed four men whom Israel suspected of planting explosive devices near the technical fence dividing the Alpha and Bravo sides of the ceasefire line. Israel cleared the area before UNDOF was able to investigate. According to media reports, this strike occurred two days after Israel had targeted a Syrian military facility housing long-range missiles that Israel suspected were to be transferred to Hezbollah.
Syrian authorities have acknowledged to UNDOF that Syria’s “allies” carry out military operations, a veiled reference to Hezbollah. Israel has maintained that it has a neutral policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis except to block any transfer of strategic weapons via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Despite Israel’s claims of neutrality, 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 while Hezbollah suspects Israel of aiding Al-Nusra in the south.
Hezbollah has said that the Golan and south Lebanon are now a single front against Israel. In mid-May Israeli military officials alluded to another looming confrontation with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Iran responded that any Israeli attack would lead to Hezbollah’s missiles being fired on Israeli cities. However, the militia’s presence in the Golan may have little to do with this escalation in rhetoric or an aggressive posture towards Israel from the Golan. Their presence is more likely linked to assisting the Syrian government in securing areas south of Damascus from opposition fighters. Hezbollah also wants to secure the Golan from any 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.
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, the key issue for the Council is whether UNDOF should be allowed more mobility for its patrolling tasks on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line, in particular access to elevated sites on hilltops. (DPKO has discontinued discussions regarding the use of new technologies, such as unmanned, unarmed aerial vehicles or satellite imagery, to carry out observation tasks. Permission was not forthcoming from either party.)
Regarding risk mitigation, an issue is how the safe and sustained provision of supplies to the 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.
UNDOF was established as a Syria-based mission. How it operates is subject to the 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.
In the resolution renewing the UNDOF mandate, the Council could:
- support DPKO’s efforts;
- reiterate the need for all parties to exercise restraint;
- urge Israel to allow UNDOF to establish more positions west of the ceasefire line on the Alpha side, given the mission’s limited mobility there, in particular access to elevated sites for improved observation; and
- urge Syria to allow UNDOF to reinforce Mt. Hermon, in particular by enabling the position to be supplied from the Bravo side by establishing another base between Damascus and Mt. Hermon.
Council and Wider 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 greatly exacerbated by the presence 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 liaison function is particularly important now in order to avoid further negative security implications for the region. For that reason, most members are keen for the Council to sustain the support of troop-contributing countries to ensure UNDOF’s ability to operate, even in its currently constrained configuration.
While both Israel and Syria highly value UNDOF’s presence and want to see the return of the mission to the Bravo side, it seems that if the security situation does not improve on the Bravo side by year’s end then DPKO may recommend that the Council reassess the mission.
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 characterised by highly divisive P5 dynamics.
|Security Council Resolutions|
|18 December 2014 S/RES/2192||This was a resolution renewing UNDOF for six months.|
|13 March 2015 S/2015/177||This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNDOF.|
Other Relevant Facts
Force Commander: Major General Purna Chandra Thapa (Nepal); Size of Mission: 785 troops; Troop Contributors: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands