December 2020 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 November 2020
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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. Ahead of the mandate renewal, the Department of Peace Operations is expected to brief Council members in consultations on the Secretary-General’s latest 90-day report on UNDOF, due in December, and the most recent developments.

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 at 31 August, UNDOF comprises 990 personnel. The UN Truce Supervision Organization in Observer Group Golan continues to provide UNDOF with military observers.

In his September report on UNDOF, the Secretary-General noted that the ceasefire between Israel and Syria was mainly sustained, notwithstanding the ongoing violations of the disengagement agreement. While the report noted that there was continued military activity across the ceasefire line and in the areas of separation and limitation, the security situation in the UNDOF area of operations has remained relatively stable. The Secretary-General expressed concern over escalations of ceasefire violations in July and August. He emphasised that it was of critical importance for all parties to maintain regular liaison with UNDOF to de-escalate tensions.

In recent months, there were frequent violations of the 1974 Agreement marked by attacks between Israel and Syria. On 21 September, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed that they had destroyed two Syrian military sites in the disengagement zone in the Golan Heights. According to media reports, Israel conducted several airstrikes inside Syrian territory, targeting pro-Iranian militia fighters in September. In October, there were reports of Israeli airstrikes on Al-Quneitra in Syria, allegedly targeting pro-Iranian and militia groups associated with the Shi’a group Hezbollah. In late October, the IDF conducted a large-scale military exercise simulating a war with Hezbollah in the northern regions of Israel bordering Lebanon and Syria.  On 18 November, the IDF confirmed that it had carried out an attack on military sites near Damascus controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The attack was a response to the explosives IDF uncovered in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights a day earlier.

In an October interview with the Russian state news agency Sputnik, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that he would be open to peace talks with Israel on the condition that the Golan Heights be returned to Syria. On 14 June, Israeli Settlements Minister Tzipi Hotovely announced approval of a plan to settle 300 families in the Golan Heights after US President Donald Trump signed a presidential proclamation recognising Israeli sovereignty over the area. The Secretary-General reiterated that he considers “that the status of Golan has not changed”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an official visit to Israel on 18 and 19 November. His itinerary included a visit to the Golan Heights accompanied by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Pompeo praised Trump for recognising Israeli sovereignty over Golan and said that Syrian control of Golan would present a danger to the people of Israel and the West. The Syrian government condemned Pompeo’s visit to Golan, calling it provocative and a clear violation of Syrian sovereignty.

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.

Council 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 them regarding the Syria file, both countries are expected to continue to consider UNDOF as a separate issue, on which they agree.

UN DOCUMENTS ON UNDOF
Security Council Resolution
29 June 2020S/RES/2530 This renewed the mandate of UNDOF until 31 December 2020.
Secretary-General’s Report
25 September 2020S/2020/945 This was Secretary-General’s report on UNDOF