UNDOF (Golan Heights)
Expected Council Action
In June, the Security Council is expected to extend for six months the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which expires on 30 June. Ahead of the mandate renewal, the Department of Peace Operations (DPO) is expected to brief Council members in a closed videoconference (VTC) on the Secretary-General’s latest 90-day report on UNDOF, due in June, and the most recent developments.
Key Recent Developments
UNDOF was established following the conclusion of the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria (the 1974 Agreement), which ended the Yom Kippur War. UNDOF is mandated to maintain the ceasefire between the parties and supervise the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces as well as the so-called areas of separation (a demilitarised buffer zone) and limitation (where Israeli and Syrian troops and equipment are restricted) in the Golan Heights. The implementation of the mandate entails observing any violations of the 1974 Agreement, reporting them, and liaising with both sides. The mission’s observation role has been limited since its September 2014 relocation from the Bravo (Syrian) to the Alpha (Israeli-occupied) side because of the armed conflict in Syria. As of March, UNDOF comprises 1,007 personnel and has a budget of $2,762,400 from July 2019 through June 2020. The UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in Observer Group Golan continues to provide UNDOF with military observers.
The Secretary-General in his 20 March report, covering the period from 23 November 2019 to 5 March, said that the ceasefire between Israel and Syria was generally being maintained. Violations of the 1974 Agreement had increased, however, and the Secretary-General expressed his worry about this development.
UNDOF’s operating environment experienced changes because Syria regained control over areas formerly held by different opposition armed actors. UNDOF made further progress towards a limited return to operations on the Bravo side, which remains a priority for the mission. Its patrol routes were able to cover about 50 percent of the area of limitation and about 95 percent of the area of separation. The Secretary-General stressed, however, that there continues to be “a significant threat” to UNDOF personnel in its area of operations, originating from explosive remnants of war and “the possible presence of sleeper cells of armed groups, including listed terrorist groups”. The Secretary-General emphasised the need for Israel and Syria to support the clearance of explosive remnants, unexploded ordnance of war, and mines.
UNDOF personnel continued to observe crossings of the ceasefire line by unidentified individuals (farmers and shepherds tending livestock) from the Bravo side on a daily basis. To deter such crossings, UNDOF started putting up warning signs.
The presence of Israel’s Iron Dome (missile) defence systems on the Alpha side is considered “unauthorized military equipment in the area of limitation” by UNDOF, in violation of the 1974 Agreement, as regularly stated in the Secretary-General’s reports.
UNDOF was able to use the Qunaytirah crossing point regularly to move personnel and equipment. Conversations with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on increased facilitation of its use by UNDOF continue. The Secretary-General underlined that UNDOF has to be able to use the crossing point fully, and necessarily with the support of both parties, in order to implement its mandate. The IDF continues to impose restrictions on movement and access to UNDOF positions in the area of separation. Further complicating progress on the issue was the 2 March closure of the Alpha gate due to measures taken to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The Secretary-General also expressed his concern over the continued presence of Syrian armed forces at a number of checkpoints in the area of separation, where only UNDOF military forces are permitted, including on the main road that connects Qunaytirah to Damascus.
According to the Secretary-General’s report, UNDOF has protested all violations of the 1974 Agreement and called upon both sides to exercise restraint, in line with its mandate.
The Council was initially scheduled to hold the three-month consultations on UNDOF on 25 March. The meeting was cancelled following measures announced by the Secretary-General to address COVID-19, which included a partial closure of UN headquarters that began on 16 March.
For the first time since 2011, UNDOF conducted a major rotation of troops through Damascus International Airport on 4 April, with the prospect of continuing to do so in the future.
Key Issues and Options
An ongoing issue for the Council is the numerous violations of the 1974 Agreement. UNDOF’s ability to implement its mandate, including its eventual full return to the Bravo side, has been a key issue since 2014. Regarding the mandate renewal, the Council’s options are restricted, as how UNDOF operates is subject solely to the 1974 Agreement. Any changes in the mandate would require agreement by Israel and Syria, which remains unlikely. Bearing that in mind, the Council could renew UNDOF’s mandate for a period longer than six months. In the same vein, the Council might consider changing the Secretary-General’s reporting cycle back to six months instead of 90 days, which had been the practice until December 2012.
Council and Wider Dynamics
There is general agreement within the Council that UNDOF’s mandate contributes to stability in the region, given the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Both countries still value UNDOF’s presence and want to see the mission’s full return to the Bravo side. Council members also support its eventual complete return, mindful of the fact that this would require a continuously favourable security environment, which is also crucial for maintaining the confidence of troop-contributing countries.
Russia and the US are the co-penholders on UNDOF. Despite the deep divisions between the co-penholders regarding the Syria file, both countries are expected to continue to consider UNDOF as a separate issue, given the positions of Israel and Syria.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE GOLAN HEIGHTS
|Security Council Resolutions|
|19 December 2019S/RES/2503||This resolution renewed the mandate of UNDOF until 30 June 2020.|
|20 March 2020S/2020/219||This was the Secretary-General’s report on UNDOF.|