Expected Council Action
In October, the Security Council is expected to receive a briefing on the activities of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) by the Department of Peace Operations (DPO) on the Secretary-General’s latest 90-day report on UNDOF, due out in October, and on the most recent developments. If the measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are still in place, the meeting is likely to be held as a videoconference (VTC).
UNDOF’s mandate expires on 31 December.
Key Recent Developments
UNDOF was established following the conclusion of the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement (the 1974 Agreement) between Israel and Syria, which ended the Yom Kippur war. Its mandate is 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. Carrying out the mandate entails observing any violations of the 1974 Agreement, reporting them, and liaising with both sides. UNDOF protests observed violations of the 1974 Agreement and calls upon both sides to exercise restraint. Such violations regularly include unauthorised personnel and equipment in the areas of separation and limitation, the firing of weapons across the ceasefire line, and drones and aircraft crossing the ceasefire line. 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 10 August, UNDOF comprises 1,098 personnel. The UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in Observer Group Golan continues to provide UNDOF with military observers.
During the latest annual meeting with force commanders from UN peacekeeping operations, on 4 June the Council was briefed, among others, by the Deputy Force Commander of UNDOF, Brigadier General Maureen O’Brien. In her remarks, she addressed UNDOF’s COVID-19 plan of action. The purpose of the plan is to limit the possibility of the virus spreading in the mission while at the same time maintaining operational capability. Measures in effect under the plan include movement restrictions between the 14 UNDOF positions, staff (national as well as international) mostly working from home, and the identification of facilities for isolation and quarantine. She emphasised that there had been no COVID-19 cases in UNDOF to date and that the mission was able to continue implementing its mandate. Movement restrictions put in place by the Israeli and Syrian governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic had recently been eased.
In her briefing, O’Brien reiterated that UNDOF’s operating environment is “complex and sensitive”, including ongoing violations of the 1974 Agreement by both sides. Under these circumstances, UNDOF continues to develop its plan for a full return to the Bravo side. She added that a new trend had emerged: the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh/ISIL) had begun claiming responsibility for attacks perpetrated in the Dara’a governorate located in the area of limitation in the south of Syria. Some of these attacks had taken place within the UNDOF area of operations.
On 14 June, Israeli Settlements Minister Tzipi Hotovely announced the approval of a plan to settle 300 families in what will be known as “Trump Heights”. On 25 March 2019, US President Donald Trump signed a presidential proclamation recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said on the same day that Secretary-General António Guterres considers “that the status of Golan has not changed”.
The Council renewed UNDOF’s mandate in a unanimous vote on 29 June in resolution 2530.
Attacks between Israel and Syria—and therefore violations of the 1974 Agreement—increased in late July after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) allegedly killed a combatant of the Iranian-sponsored Shi’a militant group Hezbollah on the outskirts of Damascus on 20 July. On 3 August, the IDF confirmed that it had killed four people it accused of setting up explosives along the border fence on the Golan Heights. Retaliating against the Syrian government, which Israel blamed, the IDF attacked targets of the Syrian Armed Forces in the demilitarised zone.
The new head of Mission and UNDOF Force Commander, Major General Ishwar Hamal of Nepal, took over at the end of July. In a 25 August statement, he expressed his intention to continue expanding UNDOF’s footprint but emphasised that this was likely to increase the security risks. Assessing the security situation as generally calm, he stressed that, nevertheless, the underlying situation “remains volatile and uncertain”.
Key Issues and Options
The numerous violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement of 1974 are ongoing issues for the Council. UNDOF’s ability to implement its mandate, including its full return to the Bravo side, has been a key issue since 2014.
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, on which they agree.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE GOLAN HEIGHTS
|Security Council Resolutions|
|29 June 2020S/RES/2530||This renewed the mandate of UNDOF until 31 December 2020.|
|8 June 2020S/2020/506||This was the latest report on UNDOF.|
|Security Council Letters|
|1 July 2020S/2020/624||This was from the president of the Security Council containing the draft UNDOF renewal resolution in blue and the votes submitted by all Council members.|
|8 June 2020S/2020/514||This was the written record of the meeting on 4 June on UN peacekeeping operations.|