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 (DPO) is expected to brief Council members in consultations on the Secretary-General’s latest 90-day report on UNDOF, due on 1 December, and the most recent developments.
Key Recent Developments
The Secretary-General’s most recent report on UNDOF’s activities, dated 28 September, noted that while the ceasefire between Israel and Syria was generally being maintained, ongoing violations of the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement persist—including firing by Israeli forces over the ceasefire line, the presence of Syrian forces in the area of separation and the existence of unauthorised weapons in the limitation area. As such, the report notes, the overall security situation in the UNDOF area of operations remains volatile, as does the security situation, raising concerns about the safety and security of UNDOF personnel.
In addition to the violations highlighted in the Secretary-General’s report, there have been ongoing tensions in and around the Golan Heights in recent weeks, and several high-profile developments have affected the area since Council members last met in closed consultations to discuss UNDOF on 5 October. Speaking at the Golan Heights Conference on Economics and Regional Development in Hispin on 10 October, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told participants that “the Golan Heights is Israeli, full stop” and that “the horrors taking place in Syria may make it seem as if it would be preferable for the Golan to prosper under Israeli hands”. This, he argued, should be the case even if the situation in Syria changed or if other countries’ diplomatic relations with the current government in Damascus improved. Bennett also announced that Israel intended to build new settlements in the area, with the aim of doubling or even quadrupling the size of the Israeli population in the Golan Heights. He added that a plan that will “change the face of the Golan Heights” would be put forward in November or December. (At the time of writing, no such plan has been proffered.)
Bennett’s statement came in the context of reports in June that the US—a co-penholder on the UNDOF file—intended to rescind its recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. (On 25 March 2019, then-US President Donald Trump signed a presidential proclamation recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, making the US the only UN member state to do so). On 25 June, the US State Department tweeted that “US policy regarding the Golan has not changed, and reports to the contrary are false”. For its part, Russia, the other co-penholder on the file, continues to maintain a policy that recognises Syria’s sovereignty over the territory. Addressing the Council during the open debate on “the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, Russia asserted that Israel continued to undertake “unilateral actions that are fraught with dangerous consequences, among them…construction of settlements, including construction plans for the occupied Syrian Golan Heights”.
On 15 October, Medhat al-Saleh, the director of the Golan Affairs department at the Syrian prime minister’s office and a former Syrian parliamentarian representing the Druze minority in the Golan Heights, was assassinated by sniper fire in the town of Ein el-Tinneh, a village inside Syria near the line of separation. Though no actors have claimed responsibility, the Syrian government maintains that Israel was behind the assassination. Israeli officials have not claimed responsibility for the killing. Israeli defence officials have said that al-Saleh had been working with Iran to enhance Iran’s presence along the Syrian-Israeli border.
Key Issues and Options
As the Council holds consultations on DPO’s briefing, the key issue will be the renewal of UNDOF’s mandate, which, at the time of writing, is scheduled to take place on 21 December.
Another issue for Council members is the ongoing violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement of 1974. The Council could consider pursuing a statement urging parties to adhere to the commitments under the agreement.
The unanimous adoption of resolution 2581 on 29 June, which reauthorised UNDOF’s mandate for six months, illustrated that the Council remains united in its view that UNDOF plays an important role in regional stability. There was little apparent disagreement amongst Council members in the negotiations, which were relatively straightforward, and no states felt the need to give explanations of their votes following the adoption.
Despite deep divisions overall on the Council regarding the Syria file, as well as opposing positions held by co-penholders Russia and the US about who holds sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the two countries continue to consider UNDOF as a separate issue on which they agree.
Council members India and Ireland have a particular interest in UNDOF, as both contribute a significant number of uniformed personnel to the mission. As at 30 September, UNDOF included 198 Indian uniformed personnel and 130 Irish uniformed personnel.
UN DOCUMENTS ON UNDOF
|Security Council Resolutions|
|29 June 2021 S/RES/2581||This renewed the mandate of UNDOF until 31 December 2021.|
|28 September 2021S/2021/833||This was the latest report on UNDOF.|