December 2023 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 November 2023
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UNDOF (Golan)

Expected Council Action  

In December, the Security Council is expected to extend the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which expires on 31 December. Ahead of the mandate renewal, a representative of the Department of Peace Operations (DPO) is expected to brief Council members in closed consultations on the Secretary-General’s latest 90-day report on UNDOF, due on 1 December, and the most recent developments.

Background and 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 areas of separation (a demilitarised buffer zone) and limitation (where Israeli and Syrian troops and equipment are restricted) in the Golan.

On 29 June, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2689, renewing UNDOF’s mandate for six months, until 31 December. The resolution called on the parties to exercise maximum restraint and prevent any breaches of the ceasefire and the area of separation. It further encouraged them “to take full advantage of UNDOF’s liaison function regularly to address issues of mutual concern”.

The Secretary-General’s most recent report on UNDOF’s activities, dated 26 September, noted that the ceasefire between Israel and Syria generally held during the reporting period of 21 May to 20 August. It said, however, that violations of the 1974 agreement persisted, observing that the overall security situation in UNDOF’s area of operations remained volatile and raising concerns about the safety and security of the military and civilian personnel of UNDOF and Observer Group Golan (OGG), which is comprised of military observers from the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO).

The report added that UNDOF maintained its assessment that UN personnel in its area of operations faced a significant threat from “explosive remnants of war, including unexploded ordnance and mines, as well as a probable threat from the possible presence of sleeper cells of armed groups”. It further observed that although the security situation in the northern and central parts of UNDOF’s area of operations on the Bravo side (Syrian Golan) generally remained calm, the southern sector continued to be volatile, with security incidents reportedly occurring in locations within the area of limitation, including along UNDOF patrol routes in Syria’s south-western Daraa Governorate.

During the period covered by the Secretary-General’s report, UNDOF observed the continued presence of Syrian armed forces within the area of separation as well as Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system, armoured vehicles, artillery systems, and multiple rocket launcher systems in the area of limitation on the Alpha side (Israeli-occupied Golan). The presence of this military equipment and personnel in the areas of separation and limitation constitutes a violation of the 1974 agreement, noted the report.

The region has witnessed a sharp rise in hostilities following the 7 October attack against Israel by Hamas, the Palestinian armed group and de facto authority in Gaza, and the subsequent response from Israeli forces, including airstrikes and ground operations in the Gaza Strip. On 10 October, a number of mortars were reportedly fired from Syria towards the Golan, several of which crossed into Israeli territory, prompting retaliatory artillery strikes by Israel in Syria. According to media reports, on 25 October, in response to rockets fired from Syria targeting areas in Golan under Israeli control, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) struck military infrastructure belonging to the Syrian army in the city of Daraa, south-western Syria. As a result, eight Syrian soldiers died and seven others were injured, according to Syrian state media. A military installation was targeted again, allegedly by Israel, in Nawa in the western countryside of Daraa on 12 November, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based human rights monitoring organisation.

There have also been reports of instances in which missile strikes, allegedly conducted by Israel from the direction of Golan, targeted locations around Damascus and Aleppo. On 17 November, the Syrian army reportedly intercepted missile strikes targeting several locations around Damascus. According to a 26 November Reuters article, airstrikes conducted by Israel hit the Damascus airport earlier the same day, putting it out of service. On multiple occasions since 7 October, the Aleppo and Damascus airports have been subjected to attacks, allegedly conducted by Israel. Although it has not commented on the strikes, Israel has traditionally argued that it carries out airstrikes in Syria to disrupt Iranian supply lines to its proxy groups. In her briefing at the 28 November Council meeting on Syria, Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Najat Rochdi said that the airstrikes on the Damascus airport temporarily interrupted the operations of the UN’s Humanitarian Air Service.

Amid rising tensions in the region, approximately 700 Hezbollah-linked fighters have been deployed in some areas in Quneitra and Rif Dimashq Governorate bordering the Golan, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Reportedly, these fighters were trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and come from different parts of the region, including Iraq, Syria, and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Since 7 October, Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged fire on multiple occasions, but these incidents have been largely limited to the Israel-Lebanon border. (For more, see the Lebanon brief in our November Monthly Forecast.)

On 28 November, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution titled “[T]he Syrian Golan” (A/78/L.10), which determined that “the continued occupation of the Syrian Golan and its de facto annexation constitute a stumbling block in the way of achieving a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region”. The resolution called on Israel to “resume the talks on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks and to respect the commitments and undertakings reached during the previous talks”. It further demanded that “Israel withdraw from all the occupied Syrian Golan to the line of 4 June 1967 in implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions”. The resolution was adopted with 81 votes in favour, 8 against, and 62 abstentions.

Key Issues and Options 

A key priority for the Council in December is the renewal of UNDOF’s mandate. A related issue is ensuring that UNDOF personnel are equipped with the necessary resources to fulfil the mission’s mandate, along with maintaining the safety and security of peacekeeping personnel.

Another key issue is the challenges the mission faces in carrying out its mandate amidst continuing violations of the 1974 agreement by the parties, such as the restrictions on the movement and access of UNDOF personnel. Since early March 2020, the IDF have restricted the movement of UNDOF and OGG personnel through the Alpha gate at the Quneitra crossing, requiring advance notice of the movement, thereby hindering the operational and administrative activities of the mission, according to the Secretary-General’s 26 September report.

A related issue is the continuing hostilities in the region and the risk of wider escalation. Members may consider pursuing a press or presidential statement urging the parties to adhere to international law and their commitments under the 1974 agreement while expressing concern about the risk of escalation resulting from these violations and the potential danger they pose to the safety of peacekeepers.

At this month’s consultations, Council members may be interested in receiving information from the DPO briefer on how the escalation of hostilities in the region has affected UNDOF’s activities. They may also wish to receive updates regarding progress on UNDOF’s return to the Bravo side. The military observers of OGG had to vacate the observation posts in 2014 owing to the deteriorating security situation in Syria.

Council Dynamics 

The unanimous adoption of resolution 2689 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 disagreement among Council members during the negotiations, which were apparently straightforward, and no Council member felt that an explanation of vote was necessary following the adoption. Some Council members believe that the situation has turned into a protracted conflict owing to continued violations of the 1974 agreement by both sides.

Despite deep divisions in the Council regarding the Syria file and opposing positions by the UNDOF co-penholders—Russia and the US—about who holds sovereignty over the Golan, the two countries continue to consider UNDOF as a separate issue on which they agree. It seems that the antagonism between Russia and the US over the conflict in Ukraine has not affected their work on UNDOF; the difficult dynamics witnessed in other Council files were not evident during the negotiations on UNDOF’s mandate in June.

It remains unclear whether and how the recent escalation of conflict in the region will affect the Council’s work on the Golan file.

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Security Council Resolutions
29 June 2023S/RES/2689 This was the resolution that renewed the mandate of UNDOF until 31 December 2023.
31 May 1974S/RES/350 This resolution established UNDOF.
Secretary-General’s Report
26 September 2023S/2023/699 This was the Secretary-General’s 90-day UNDOF report.

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