March 2021 Monthly Forecast

Posted 26 February 2021
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MIDDLE EAST

UNDOF (Golan Heights)

Expected Council Action

In March, 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 on the Secretary-General’s latest 90-day report on UNDOF, also due in March, and on the most recent developments.

UNDOF’s mandate expires on 30 June.

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 violations of the 1974 Agreement, reporting them and liaising with both sides. UNDOF protests violations it observes 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 December 2020, UNDOF comprises 1,224 personnel. The budget allocated to the mission for the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June is $67,574,300. The UN Truce Supervision Organization in Observer Group Golan continues to provide UNDOF with military observers who focus on situational awareness and static observation.

The Secretary-General’s 2 December 2020 report, covering the period from 21 August to 19 November 2020, said that the ceasefire between Israel and Syria was generally being maintained. However, there were several violations of the 1974 Agreement, including jet aircraft crossing from the Bravo to the Alpha side, air strikes in the area of separation, unauthorised equipment in the area of limitation, the crossing of the ceasefire line by armed forces, and their presence in the area of separation. UNDOF has protested all violations of the 1974 Agreement and called upon both sides to exercise restraint, in line with its mandate.

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. UNDOF maintained its support for the International Committee of the Red Cross in facilitating the return of individuals who had crossed the ceasefire line. It also observed the movement of armed individuals between Lebanon and Syria. According to 17 February media reports, an Israeli woman crossed the ceasefire line and was detained by the Syrian authorities. A prisoner exchange between Israel and Syria, reportedly supported by Russia, led to the woman being able to return to Israel. Financial support by Israel for the supply of the first Russian COVID-19 vaccine to Syrians was also reported to be part of the deal.

The Secretary-General’s report discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic continued to have an impact on the implementation of UNDOF’s mandate, including slowing down the gradual return of UNDOF to the Bravo side. UNDOF’s ability to patrol was affected by the two-week quarantine requirement for rotating contingents. Despite some restrictions, UNDOF was able to reconstruct another position on the Bravo side and reoccupied it on 12 November. The enhancement of UNDOF’s operational reach and capability on the Bravo side continued with the opening of new patrol routes. UNDOF regularly engages with the Israel Defense Forces on their restrictions on UNDOF’s movements.

The Secretary-General stressed that there continued to be “a significant threat” to UNDOF personnel in its area of operations, originating from explosive remnants of war and “a probable threat” from “the possible presence of sleeper cells of armed groups”.

According to media reports, Israel has increased its attacks on military bases in Syria used by Iran-backed militias. The latest such attack reportedly took place on 14 February.

On 25 March 2019, then-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’s view was that “the status of Golan has not changed”. During an 8 February interview with CNN, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked whether the new US administration would continue to recognise the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Blinken responded that “the control of the Golan […] remains of real importance to Israel’s security” and that “legal questions are something else”. He added that “if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at”.

The Council renewed UNDOF’s mandate for six months until 30 June in a unanimous vote on 18 December 2020 in resolution 2555.

Key Issues and Options

The numerous violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement of 1974 are an ongoing issue 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 their deep divisions regarding the Syria file, both countries are expected to continue to consider UNDOF a separate issue on which they agree.

UN DOCUMENTS ON THE GOLAN HEIGHTS

Security Council Resolutions
18 December 2020S/RES/2555 (2020) This renewed the mandate of UNDOF until 30 June 2021.
Secretary-General’s Reports
2 December 2020S/2020/1159 This was on UNDOF.
Security Council Letters
18 December 2020S/2020/1263 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.