March 2016 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

Golan Heights (UNDOF)

Expected Council Action

In March, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations will brief Council members in consultations on the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). The Secretary-General’s report is due 21 March. No outcome is expected.

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

Key Recent Developments

Due to the spillover of the Syrian civil war into UNDOF’s area of operations, most UNDOF peacekeepers relocated from the Bravo (Syrian) side to the Alpha (Israeli) side of the ceasefire line in September 2014. The majority of personnel remain based on the Alpha (Israeli) side, resulting in restricted mission mobility and operational capacity. 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 December 2015 UNDOF report detailed how Syrian forces had 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. In early January, clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups increased as the government launched an offensive to regain ground in the southern part of the mission’s area of operations.

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.

On 19 December 2015, Samir Kuntar—a Lebanese militant affiliated with Hezbollah who headed the “Syrian resistance for the liberation of the occupied Golan”—was killed in Damascus, reportedly by a targeted Israeli airstrike. The head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said that Israel carried out the assassination and that Hezbollah would respond. On 20 December, three rockets were launched from southern Lebanon towards Israel and Israel responded with mortar fire. No casualties were reported from the exchange of fire.

This incident was followed by further hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel. On 4 January, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon reported that an Israeli military patrol was attacked near Sheb’a Farms. Hezbollah fighters set off a roadside bomb, and Israeli forces responded with artillery fire. Hezbollah said the attack was carried out in retaliation for Kuntar’s assassination.

On 17 February, media reports indicated that Israeli missiles struck a government military facility near Damascus. Israel has maintained that it has a neutral policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis except to interdict weapons shipments via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nasrallah responded that Hezbollah was not seeking war with Israel, but nevertheless threatened to target ammonia storage tanks in Haifa.

Since Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, Israel and Russia have made arrangements to avoid clashes of their respective forces operating in Syrian airspace.

Key Issues

Considering the 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. It is unclear if the recently agreed cessation of hostilities in Syria will sufficiently improve security conditions to allow for the return of UNDOF peacekeepers.

The primary concern for the Council remains the increasing ceasefire violations. The presence of Syrian armed forces and heavy weapons in the area of separation monitored by the mission, Syrian airstrikes, Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire over the ceasefire line are all violations of the disengagement agreement. No military forces other than those of UNDOF are allowed in the area of separation.

Options

UNDOF was established as a Syria-based mission. How it operates is subject to the disengagement agreement, and options remain extremely limited since any change would require agreement by Israel and Syria, which is unlikely to be forthcoming.

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.

Since June 2012, Russia and the US have been the co-penholders on resolutions renewing UNDOF.

UN Documents

Security Council Resolutions
22 December 2015 S/RES/2257 This resolution renewed UNDOF for six months.
Secretary-General’s Reports
3 December 2015 S/2015/930 This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNDOF.

Other Relevant Facts

Force Commander: Major General Jai Shanker Menon (India); Size of Mission: 789 troops; Troop Contributors: Bhutan, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands