Consultations on UN Disengagement Observation Force Following Release of Peacekeepers
Council members are expecting a briefing in consultations tomorrow (17 September) from Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmund Mulet on the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). While consultations had been scheduled to discuss the latest UNDOF report (S/2014/665), tomorrow’s meeting has taken on a new dimension with the recent detention and subsequent release of Fijian peacekeepers and a siege of Filipino peacekeepers manning two UNDOF positions by Al-Nusra, a terrorist group listed by the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. (The report covers the period from 29 May to 3 September and went to press just as the 45 troops were being released, with the development acknowledged in a footnote .) There were similar incidents in March and May of 2013, but the number of peacekeepers detained as well as the duration of their detention have been unprecedented for the mission.
Council members were briefed on 3 September by peacekeeping head Hervé Ladsous on the situation under “any other business”. In response to the incidents, between 28 August and 3 September, Council members released three press statements (SC/11540, SC/11546 and SC/11548) and have been kept apprised of the situation through a series of confidential notes from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) over the course of several weeks. However, this will be the first opportunity for a longer discussion since the Fijian peacekeepers were released on 11 September.
Council members are familiar with the series of events that began on 27 August, when armed opposition forces overran government forces at the Quneitra crossing on the Syrian side of the armistice line. Stray mortars from the fighting landed in or near UNDOF positions as well as on the Israeli side of the crossing. The next day, 45 Fijian peacekeepers were detained by Al-Nusra until their release two weeks later.
Al-Nusra also surrounded two UNDOF positions, demanding the peacekeepers there give up their weapons in exchange for the release of the Fijian peacekeepers. When the peacekeepers refused, Al-Nusra encircled the two UNDOF positions with explosive devices, effectively besieging 72 Filipino peacekeepers.
On 30 August, UNDOF’s rapid reaction force safely extracted 32 Filipino peacekeepers from one of the surrounded positions. Meanwhile, on the same day, Al-Nusra attacked the other position where the remaining 40 Filipino peackeepers were trapped. The peacekeepers returned fire, reportedly killing three Al-Nusra fighters. According to media reports, the 40 Filipino peacekeepers escaped to safety later that night during a UN-mediated ceasefire.
Tomorrow, Council members will be interested to get more clarity on the negotiations that led to the 11 September release of the 45 Fijian peacekeepers, including whether any key regional player had a part in influencing the captors. On 2 September, Al-Nusra had set out a series of demands for the release of peacekeepers that included the group’s removal from the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida sanctions list, delivery of humanitarian aid to areas around Damascus besieged by the government, and a prisoner exchange. Media reports indicate that UN officials have said no ransom was requested or paid. Al-Nusra reported that their “religious leaders” had advised releasing the peacekeepers. While none of the group’s demands were met, a video was posted on 10 September where Fijian peacekeepers declared that Al-Nusra had not harmed them in any way. The video appearance was reportedly a condition for their release the next day.
Council members will also be interested in more information on the reported command from Manila for the trapped Filipino peacekeepers to stand their ground in contradiction of the orders seemingly given by UNDOF Force Commander Iqbal Singh Singha (India) to abandon their positions and lay down their weapons. The UN has denied that it ordered the peacekeepers to leave their weapons behind. Apparently, the Philippines is asking for an investigation of Singha for allegedly endangering the safety of the Filipino peacekeepers. Ladsous has said he fully supports the force commander’s decision and that the Filipino peacekeepers were ordered to hold fire so as not to expose the detained Fijians to further risk. Related to this, Council members will also be interested in the subsequent exchange of fire between Filipino peacekeepers with Al-Nusra. The Secretary-General’s report says warning fire was shot and Al-Nusra retreated, whereas media reports indicate three Al-Nusra fighters were killed.
Council members will be keen to know whether there are signs of a crisis of confidence among troop-contributing-countries as occurred in 2013 when Austria, a key contributor to UNDOF, withdrew its troops. Prior to the recent incidents, the government of the Philippines on 23 August had already announced that due to the security situation it would withdraw its 331 peacekeepers from UNDOF when their tour of duty ends in October. Fiji and Ireland, however, have signalled continued commitment to the mission so long as further risk-mitigation measures are taken. Other troop-contributors include India, Nepal and the Netherlands.
Regarding risk mitigation, Council members will also want to know how DPKO has adjusted the operating posture of the observer mission and for how long activity on the Bravo (Syrian) side might remain suspended. Following the release of the peacekeepers, UNDOF began to relocate personnel and critical equipment from the Bravo side to the Alpha (Israeli) side of the area of operations. The pace of this relocation was accelerated when clashes intensified following the release of the Fijian peacekeepers, leaving no government forces between Al-Nusra and UNDOF positions. The relocation was safely completed on 15 September. It seems there has been some discussion that, even if some countries withdraw their troops, fewer personnel may be needed since the mission’s tasks will be restricted and carried out from the Alpha side. Council members might possibly be interested in a preliminary discussion on whether UNDOF will find it difficult to implement its mandate in the changed security circumstances and are likely to be interested in an explanation of how the relocation will affect the mission’s observation work and how the mission will retain liaison channels with Syria. These discussions will likely inform Council members’ thinking on how the UNDOF mandate may need to be further adjusted when it comes up for renewal in December. However, it may be difficult to significantly alter since the mandate derives from the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria.
Council members are also likely to be interested in discussing with DPKO the increasing clashes, both in number and intensity, that have heightened tension between Israel and Syria. The recent clash at the Quneitra crossing is one in a long series of significantly escalating incidents along the ceasefire line. The Council has always generally agreed that UNDOF contributes to stability in the region in the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. However, its utility may be seen as particularly high now as a means to avoid further negative security implications for the region. In this regard, most Council members are keen to maintain good relationships with troop-contributing countries to ensure UNDOF’s ability to operate effectively.