UNDOF (Golan Heights)
Expected Council Action
In September, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) will brief Council members in consultations on the report on the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), due 11 September. No outcome is expected.
UNDOF was established in 1974 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Its mandate expires on 31 December.
Key Recent Developments
The spillover of the Syrian civil war into UNDOF’s area of operations has significantly affected the way the mission carries out its mandate. In September 2014, after Al-Qaida affiliated Al-Nusra Front overran Syrian government forces in Quneitra (a Syrian district close to the Israeli-occupied Golan), the majority of UNDOF peacekeepers relocated from the Bravo (Syrian) side to the Alpha (Israeli) side of the ceasefire line. A small number of peacekeepers are still deployed on the Syrian side on Mt. Hermon, and UNDOF command has moved to Damascus.
The 3 June UNDOF report noted continuous incidents of artillery fire from both sides across the ceasefire line. The report also noted that Syrian armed forces and opposition armed groups have been increasingly using more heavy weapons, while the Syrian government has also employed air power in the area of limitation on the Bravo side.
Other challenges faced by UNDOF were highlighted during the 17 June briefing on UN peacekeeping operations. Major General Michael Finn (Ireland)—who heads the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), whose observers are attached to UNDOF—was a briefer. In the case of UNDOF, the crisis in Syria and its spread to the Golan have heightened the security concerns of troop-contributing countries (TCCs); almost half of UNTSO’s 25 TCCs have imposed caveats that restrict where their observers can be deployed. Caveats have had a profound impact on UNDOF, especially since September 2014, when the majority of the peacekeepers were redeployed to the Israeli side of the ceasefire line due to security concerns. Though UNDOF is a Syria-based mission, currently there is only a small contingent of Nepalese peacekeepers still stationed on the Syrian side on Mt. Hermon. Current circumstances limiting UNDOF’s performance could trigger a discussion about a possible reconfiguration of the mission during the next renewal in December.
Heavy fighting has continued in Quneitra province. UNDOF has been particularly concerned regarding the situation of the Syrian Druze village of Hader, located near the ceasefire line. The Druze are a religious minority in Syria who have been generally supportive of the Syrian regime. However, the regime has withdrawn its forces from Druze areas over the past several months, and by mid-June, Al Nusra took control of some of these military positions around Hader, effectively putting the village under siege. There are growing fears that the fall of Hader might result in mass killings of the Druze population.
On 22 June, more than 100 Druze residing in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights attacked an Israeli military ambulance carrying injured Syrians near Majdal Shams on the Israeli side. Druze demonstrators claimed that the injured Syrians were members of Al-Nusra fighting against the Druze community on the Syrian side of the Golan. Following this incident, Israel announced it would no longer allow wounded Al-Nusra members across the ceasefire line for medical treatment.
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 the Druze and the Tehran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah—also active in the Golan on behalf of the Syrian regime—suspect Israel of aiding Al-Nusra in the south. The forthcoming UNDOF report is expected to confirm that since Israel’s announcement, UNDOF has observed a significant decrease in such activity.
On 29 July, media reports indicated that an Israeli drone targeted Hezbollah forces near Hader. Israel has maintained that it has a neutral policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis except where they detect a threat from Hezbollah.
Tensions in the Golan intensified on 20 August when four rockets were fired from Syria into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israeli airstrikes then targeted Syrian regime forces which Israel considers responsible for attacks launched from Syrian territory. The next day, Israel continued with the airstrikes, claiming to target Tehran-backed Palestinian militants of Islamic Jihad. Islamic Jihad denied involvement in the previous day’s rocket attack. On 21 August, the Secretary-General called on all involved to exercise maximum restraint to prevent further escalation in the already tense regional environment.
The primary concern for the Council remains the spillover of the Syrian crisis into UNDOF’s area of operations and increasing ceasefire violations that have the potential to escalate tensions, not only between Israel and Syria but also between Israel and Lebanon due to the overt presence of Hezbollah in the Golan.
Considering 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 this respect, an issue for the Council is whether Israel should be asked to allow UNDOF more mobility for its patrolling tasks on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line, especially access to hilltops to observe the area of operations.
With respect to risk mitigation, an issue is how the safety of the remaining peacekeepers on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line will be guaranteed. Mt. Hermon is strategically important to Israel, which could feel compelled to man the position itself if there were no UNDOF security presence there. This would be an especially difficult challenge to regional security and the 1974 disengagement agreement.
UNDOF was established as a Syria-based mission, and how it operates is subject to the 1974 disengagement agreement. Any changes require agreement by Israel and Syria. The mission’s mobility and operational capacity has been restricted because the majority of personnel are now based on the Alpha (Israeli) side. Considering these circumstances on the ground, the Council could start looking ahead and consider possible mandate changes during December’s renewal.
At the moment the Council could adopt a statement that would:
- support DPKO’s efforts;
- reiterate the need for restraint by all parties;
- 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 members are concerned about the increasing clashes in UNDOF’s area of operations and the tension between Israel and Syria along the armistice line, which has been exacerbated by the presence of Hezbollah militia forces.
The Council has always generally agreed that UNDOF contributes to stability in the region, considering the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Nonetheless, its function is notably more 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.
|Security Council Resolutions|
|29 June 2015 S/RES/2229||This was a resolution renewing UNDOF for six months.|
|3 June 2015 S/2015/405||This was the report of the Secretary-General on UNDOF.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|17 June 2015 S/PV.7464||This was a briefing by Herve Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, and the heads of military components of peacekeeping operations.|