September 2016 Monthly Forecast

Posted 1 September 2016
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MIDDLE EAST

UNDOF (Golan Heights)

Expected Council Action

In September, 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 22 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

It has been two years since the spillover of the Syrian civil war into UNDOF’s area of operations resulted in the relocation of most of the mission’s peacekeepers 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 Israeli side, restricting mission mobility and operational capacity. Some peacekeepers remain on the Syrian side at Mt. Hermon, which is strategically important to Israel. If there were no UNDOF security presence at that position, Israel could feel compelled to man it. That would be an especially difficult challenge to regional security and the 1974 disengagement agreement.

The June UNDOF report described the varying security environments in different sectors of the mission’s area of operations. In the northern sector, the security situation had improved, and in the central sector, clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups continued, albeit with decreasing intensity. In the southern sector, there was fighting between various armed opposition groups, particularly between Al Nusra Front (now known as the Fatah al-Sham Front) and the Free Syrian Army against the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. 

Given the improved security situation in the northern sector, the UN is planning a limited return to Camp Faouar, though the timing of any such redeployment to the Bravo side is highly contingent on having the proper operational and security environment in place. The Security Council welcomed the plan for phased redeployment, conditions permitting, in resolution 2294, which it adopted in June to renew UNDOF until the end of the year. 

The June UNDOF report also reported that the ceasefire between Israel and Syria was largely maintained but that the situation remained volatile with a significant number of breaches of the ceasefire line. The forthcoming September report is expected to detail further violations that have occurred since the last reporting period. On three occasions, 22 August and on 3 and 25 July, Israeli forces targeted Syrian military positions after coming under fire from the Syrian side of the ceasefire line—probably a result of errant fire. 

The situation in the Golan increases the possibility of escalating tensions not only between Israel and Syria but also between Israel and Lebanon and between Israel and Russia. 

Tensions with Lebanon have been exacerbated 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 20 July, an Israeli jet reportedly struck Hezbollah positions in Quneitra—a town in the Golan held by Syrian forces and Hezbollah. Hezbollah denied being targeted by Israel, reporting instead that an Al Nusra rocket attack was responsible for the blast. Israel has a neutral policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis except in regard to Hezbollah. 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 “unnecessary confrontations” of their respective forces operating in Syrian airspace. Since then, media reports have indicated 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 reports. More recently, a Russian drone flew almost 4 kilometres into Israeli airspace near the Golan Heights on 17 July. Israel responded with two missiles and jet fire. The drone was not hit and returned to Syrian airspace. Russia told Israel that the drone had entered Israeli airspace by mistake. 

Key Issues

Considering the security situation in the Golan, the full return of UNDOF to the Syrian side seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. This is a significant issue in as much as it constrains the mission’s ability to carry out its monitoring tasks.

A re-emerging issue, given plans for a partial redeployment to Camp Faouar, will be the safety and security of UN personnel.

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, the 17 July incident and artillery fire are all ceasefire violations. No military forces other than those of UNDOF are allowed in the area of separation. 

Options

The Council is somewhat constrained in its options for UNDOF. It was established as a Syria-based mission and how it operates, including the use of enhanced equipment or new technologies, is subject to the disengagement agreement, with any changes requiring agreement by Israel and Syria, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. 

Nevertheless, the Council could issue a statement to:

  • 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;
  • urge Israel and Syria to agree to work with the UN on contingency arrangements for the extraction of UNDOF personnel if an extreme situation arises;
  • urge Syria to expedite de-mining around Camp Faouar and give its assurances that patrol routes and supply lines will be secured; and
  • urge Israel to allow UNDOF to establish more temporary observation posts on the Alpha side, given the mission’s limited mobility there.
Council Dynamics

The Council has generally agreed that UNDOF contributes to stability in the region in the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. While there is recognition that the mission’s observation function has been significantly curtailed following its September 2014 relocation to the Alpha (Israeli) side of the ceasefire line, its liaison function remains particularly important to avoid further negative security implications for the region.

Israel and Syria value UNDOF’s presence and want to see the return of the mission to the Bravo side. While the security situation is still not conducive to the mission’s full redeployment back to the Syrian side of the ceasefire line, Council members unanimously support the UN’s plan for an initial and limited redeployment to Camp Faouar if sufficient security and operational conditions are met. Council members are aware that ensuring such conditions are in place prior to redeployment is particularly important to maintain the confidence of troop-contributing countries to UNDOF.

Council members remain 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 and, in limited instances, confrontations with Russian aircraft.

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

UN Documents on UNDOF (Golan Heights)
Security Council Resolution
29 June 2016 S/RES/2294 This was a resolution that renewed UNDOF’s mandate for six months.
Secretary-General’s Report
8 June 2016 S/2016/520 This was the latest UNDOF report.