December 2015 Monthly Forecast

Posted 25 November 2015
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MIDDLE EAST

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 8 December.

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 majority of UNDOF peacekeepers relocated from the Bravo (Syrian) side to the Alpha (Israeli) side of the ceasefire line in September 2014. The UNDOF command moved its headquarters to Damascus and some peacekeepers remain on the Syrian side at Mt. Hermon. 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.

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 September UNDOF report detailed a 20 August rocket attack 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 the airstrikes, claiming to target Tehran-backed Palestinian militants of Islamic Jihad. Islamic Jihad denied involvement. In the months since, most incidents have been minor and limited to errant rocket fire from the Syrian side, with Israel returning fire.

Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad on 30 September. However, as early as 21 September, Israel and Russia held “de-confliction” talks in Moscow to avoid clashes of their respective forces operating in Syrian airspace.

The December Secretary-General’s report is expected to highlight that Syrian forces have recaptured some positions from armed opposition groups in the Golan, resulting in a somewhat calmer situation in the central and northern areas of UNDOF’s area of operations. However, clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups have increased in the southern part of the mission’s area of operations, including an intensification of airstrikes. In late October, media reports indicate that Russian airstrikes targeted rebel positions in the southern province of Dera’a, near the Golan Heights.

On 9 November, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu met with US President Barack Obama and raised the issue of recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. (Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 six-day war and unilaterally annexed it in 1981. This annexation has not been recognised and the Golan Heights is occupied territory under international law.) The US reiterated its position that it will not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Key Issues

The primary concern for the Council remains the increasing ceasefire violations. 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.

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 for enhanced observation.

Options

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, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. The majority of personnel are now based on the Alpha (Israeli) side, resulting in restricted mission mobility and operational capacity.

In the resolution renewing the UNDOF mandate, the Council could:

  • urge Israel and Syria to agree to establish more UNDOF crossing points between the Alpha and Bravo sides, since the Quneitra crossing was lost in September 2014 (UNDOF personnel now transit through Lebanon to reach the Bravo side);
  • urge Israel to allow UNDOF to establish more temporary observation posts on the Alpha side, given the mission’s limited mobility there, in particular access to elevated sites; and
  • urge Syria to allow UNDOF to reinforce Mt. Hermon, in particular by enabling the position to be supplied from the Bravo side (Mt. Hermon has to be supplied now via Damascus).
Council and Wider Dynamics

Israel and Syria value UNDOF’s presence and want to see the return of the mission to the Bravo side. However, the security situation is not conducive to the mission’s full redeployment back to the Syrian side of the ceasefire line.

Council members are concerned about armed clashes in the area of operations, as well as the tension between Israel and Syria along the armistice line, which has been 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.

Though the US is the penholder on the Golan Heights, resolutions renewing UNDOF have been jointly authored with Russia since June 2012.

UN Documents

Security Council Resolution
29 June 2015 S/RES/2229 This was a resolution renewing UNDOF for six months.
Secretary-General’s Report
10 September 2015 S/2015/699 This was the report of the Secretary-General on UNDOF.
Security Council Letters
11 September 2015 S/2015/715 This was a letter from Iran regarding the 20 August rocket attack from Syria.
21 August 2015
S/2015/659
This was a letter from Israel regarding the 20 August rocket attack from Syria.