Consultations on the UN Disengagement Observer Force
Council members are expecting a briefing in consultations from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) tomorrow (7 June) on the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) following today’s clashes between the Syrian government and armed opposition near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria and Austria’s announcement that it would withdraw its troops from UNDOF. UNDOF currently has three troop-contributing countries (TCCs) —Austria, India and the Philippines—, with Austria contributing a little over one-third of the troops. (Its withdrawal will leave about 530 troops.) At press time a joint U.S.-Russia draft press statement condemning the fighting in the Area of Separation and reaffirming the Council’s strong support for UNDOF is under silence till 6 pm.
The spillover effects from the Syrian crisis have led to a more volatile situation in recent months. This morning there were clashes near the Quneitra-crossing on the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria which was then taken by Syrian rebels before later being retaken by the Syrian army. Council members will be interested to hear from DPKO how it plans to cope with this increasingly challenging operational environment in the light of Austria’s announced withdrawal.
Austria is the largest troop-contributing country with 378 troops out of the 917 currently deployed in UNDOF and has been an UNDOF TCC since 1974. However, Austria warned it would not be able to maintain its commitment to UNDOF after the EU decided on 27 May not to renew its arms embargo on Syria. This morning, Austria said due to the sustained deterioration of the security situation in the region, the threat to its soldiers had reached an unacceptable level and that “this morning’s developments show that we cannot wait any longer [to withdraw].” (Austria has legislative elections in September and some opposition members have used the withdrawal of Austrian troops as part of its campaign platform. Several Austrian peacekeepers were injured when an UNDOF convoy came under fire on 29 November 2012.)
Council members will also be interested in how Austria’s withdrawal may impact the confidence of other TCCs, in particular the next largest contributor to UNDOF, the Philippines. Manila has signaled growing discomfort with the increasingly dangerous situation for their troops. A Filipino peacekeeper, as well as one from India, was injured in the clashes today and Filipino peacekeepers were detained on 6 March and 7 May by armed opposition groups. Furthermore, the over 20 TCCs to the UN Truce Supervision Organization, which regularly contributes unarmed military observers to UNDOF’s Observer Group Golan, have grown increasingly concerned. On 15 May, three military observers were detained for several hours by armed opposition elements.
Other TCCs, such as Japan and Croatia, which had contributed much lower number of personnel, withdrew in late 2012 and early 2013, citing the violence in Syria. (At press time, it seemed that Fiji would replace the Croatian and Japanese contingents.)
Council members are also likely to be interested in discussing with DPKO the heightened tension between Israel and Syria. This morning’s clash at the Quneitra crossing has been the most significant of continuing sporadic incidents as well as the closest to the ceasefire line. Council members appreciate that Israel’s response to the increasing insecurity in the Golan has been restrained. However, they are concerned about regional implications of these continued clashes, particularly in light of weakened UNDOF staffing.
The Council was expected to pay close attention to UNDOF as its mandate expires at the end of the month. Aside from tomorrow’s consultations, the Council was already slated to hold its regular meeting on 13 June with TCCs and to be briefed on the Secretary-General’s report on 18 June.
Given the crisis of confidence among UNDOF TCCs regarding the safety and security of their personnel, it is likely Council members will need to engage strongly with TCCs this month to take into account their concerns in the lead-up to the mandate renewal. However, it may be difficult to significantly alter the UNDOF mandate given that the mandate derives from the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria.