June 2016 Monthly Forecast

Posted 31 May 2016
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MIDDLE EAST

UNDOF (Golan Heights)

Expected Council Action

In June, 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 will brief Council members in consultations on the UNDOF report, due on 13 June.

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, 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. 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 March 2016 UNDOF report detailed a somewhat calmer situation since January in the northern sector of UNDOF’s area of operations because of a local truce between the Syrian government and armed opposition groups. The forthcoming UNDOF report is expected to state that this truce is holding, resulting in less fighting, albeit with sporadic exchanges of fire. In the southern sector there are ongoing clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups, and also fighting between rebel groups, particularly Al Nusra Front and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.

The civil war in Syria continues to adversely affect UNDOF’s ability to function. Despite lower levels of violence in certain areas of UNDOF’s area of operations, the overall security situation is not yet conducive to UNDOF’s return to the Bravo (Syrian) side. The situation in the Golan increases the possibility of escalating tensions not only between Israel and Syria but also between Israel and Lebanon because of the overt presence in the Golan of Hezbollah—the Tehran-backed Lebanese Shi’a militia fighting on the side of the Syrian regime.

On 10 May, Israel struck a weapons convoy in Syria near the Lebanese border. Israel has a neutral policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis except to interdict weapons shipments via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel neither confirms nor denies specific incidents of striking Hezbollah targets in Syria, but in December 2015 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a rare public admission, said, “We [Israel] occasionally carry out operations in Syria to prevent that country from becoming a front against us.”

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. Media reports indicate that Russia has fired on Israeli military aircraft on at least two occasions, without specifying dates, locations or whether Israeli aircraft had been hit. Neither country has confirmed these allegations, but Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin on 21 April to seek enhanced coordination to avoid “unnecessary confrontations”.

On 26 April, the Department of Political Affairs briefed Council members on the Golan Heights under “any other business”. Egypt, on behalf of the Arab League, requested the briefing following remarks by Netanyahu that the Golan Heights would remain forever under Israeli sovereignty. Netanyahu’s remarks were a response to the inclusion of the return of the Golan Heights to Syria as a “point of commonality” between the parties at the intra-Syrian political talks facilitated by the UN in Geneva. Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it illegally in 1981. Under international law, the Golan Heights is considered an occupied territory. In elements to the press, Council members stressed that the status of the Golan Heights remains unchanged.

On 13 May, Mustafa Badreddine—a Hezbollah commander believed to be directing the group’s Syria operations—was killed in Damascus. Badreddine was one of the four people being tried in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah said Badreddine was killed near the Damascus airport in artillery shelling by Sunni rebel groups. At least one Hezbollah official suggested Israel might be responsible. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there had been no shelling near the airport at the time of the blast that killed Badreddine. Israel declined to comment.

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. 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. There is also the issue of whether UNDOF may use new technologies, such as unmanned, unarmed aerial vehicles or satellite imagery, to carry out observation tasks. The use of such technology would require permission from both Israel and Syria, which neither party has yet granted.

The other primary concern for the Council remains the ceasefire violations. The presence of Syrian armed forces and heavy weapons in the area of separation monitored by UNDOF, 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 any changes require agreement by Israel and Syria, which is unlikely to be forthcoming.

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

  • reiterate the need for all parties to exercise restraint;
  • urge Israel and Syria to allow the use of new technologies so UNDOF could better fulfil its observation tasks;
  • urge Israel and Syria to allow the use of enhanced equipment to better enable UNDOF’s force protection capabilities;
  • urge Israel and Syria to agree to establish more UNDOF crossing points between the Alpha and Bravo sides, since the Quneitra crossing was lost to rebel groups in September 2014; and
  • urge Israel to allow UNDOF to establish more temporary observation posts on the Alpha side, given the mission’s limited mobility there.
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 and about the tension between Israel and Syria along the armistice line, which has been exacerbated by the presence of Hezbollah.

The Council has 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
14 March 2016 S/2016/242 This was the report of the Secretary-General on UNDOF.