December 2016 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 November 2016
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MIDDLE EAST

UNDOF (Golan Heights)

Expected Council Action

In December, 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

It has been a little more than 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 UNDOF’s 819 uniformed personnel remain based on the Israeli side, restricting mission mobility and operational capacity.

The September UNDOF report described the varying security environments in different sectors of the mission’s area of operations. In the northern sector, the security situation 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 and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. (On 27 November, in an exchange of fire between Israel and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, four Brigade fighters were killed by an Israeli airstrike.)

Given the improved security situation in the northern sector, on 14 November the UN reported an initial return of 150 troops from Fiji, India and Nepal to Camp Faouar. This limited return to the Bravo side was undertaken in line with resolution 2294, which welcomed the plan for a phased redeployment if and when security and operational conditions permitted. Prior to the redeployment, the UN secured agreement from Israel and Syria on procedures for the extraction of UNDOF personnel if an extreme situation arises.

The September UNDOF report also said 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 December report is expected to detail further violations that have occurred since the last reporting period. On several occasions, such as on 9 November and 4 September, Israeli forces targeted Syrian military positions after coming under errant fire from the Syrian side of the ceasefire line.

A more serious incident occurred on 13 September when an Israeli jet targeted Syrian military positions after a stray mortar struck the Israeli side of the ceasefire line. Syria then returned fire with two anti-aircraft missiles. The Syrian army claimed it downed an Israeli jet and drone, a claim denied by Israel, which said neither of its aircraft was compromised.

The situation in the Golan increases the possibility of escalating tensions between Israel and Syria, between Israel and Lebanon, and between Israel and Russia.

The 13 September incident provoked a statement from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that Israel should show restraint and use airstrikes only if authorised by the Security Council. 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.

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 11 November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during a meeting in Jerusalem that Israel would not allow Hezbollah to set up a front against it in the Golan.

On 30 November, media reports indicate that Israel struck a weapons convoy in Syria near a highway linking Damascus to Beirut. 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.”

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 the partial redeployment to Camp Faouar, is the safety 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 13 September 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 is subject to the disengagement agreement, with any changes requiring consent by Israel and Syria.

Nevertheless, in the resolution renewing UNDOF’s 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 for 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 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. The security situation is still not conducive to the mission’s full redeployment back to the Syrian side of the ceasefire line, but Council members unanimously support the initial redeployment to Camp Faouar. Council members are aware that ensuring the safety of these troops is particularly important to maintain the confidence of countries contributing troops 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.

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

UN Documents

Security Council Resolutions
29 June 2016 S/RES/2294 The was a resolution renewing UNDOF’s mandate for six months.
Secretary-General’s Reports
20 September 2016 S/2016/803 This was the report of the Secretary-General on UNDOF.