A Syrian rebel group that twice abducted United Nations peacekeepers near the Israeli border in the past three months stole several UN vehicles, a UN Peacekeeping spokesperson acknowledged to The Times of Israel — including at least two sophisticated armored personnel carriers.
An Israeli expert warned that the sophisticated UN-marked vehicles could be used in surprise border attacks on IDF targets.
UNDOF reported in its quarterly report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that on March 6, a supply convoy carrying 21 UN personnel was waylaid by Syrian rebels near the village of Jamlah, near the Israeli border. After several days in captivity the Filipino peacekeepers were released unharmed, but, as of the writing of the March report, their four vehicles were “yet to be recovered.”
Video footage uploaded by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the Syrian rebel group that claimed responsibility for the March 6 hijacking, showed the hijacked vehicles, which included a UN-marked Renault water tanker and two RG-31 Nyala armored personnel carriers.
The RG-31 Nyala is a South African-made, mine- and IED-resistant eight-metric-ton behemoth capable of carrying up to 10 men, and has a price tag of approximately $670,000, according to analyst estimates. According to a Canadian news report from 2005, the Nyala is “virtually indestructible” and is “designed to be able to resist two simultaneous blasts from anti-tank mines.”
UN Peacekeeping spokesperson Josephine Guerrero confirmed to The Times of Israel, however, that not only were the four vehicles missing from March’s kidnapping, but that “a number of vehicles were taken during the March and May incidents involving the detention of UNDOF peacekeepers [emphasis added].”
She didn’t specify how many vehicles were stolen during the May 7 incident, during which four more Filipino peacekeepers were taken hostage by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. (Evidently, in the latest May 15 kidnapping of UNTSO peacekeepers on the Israel-Syria border, only the soldiers’ personal effects were “looted,” according to the UN, and no military hardware was stolen.)
Guerrero also refused to verify the types of vehicles stolen by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, or confirm the authenticity of the rebel videos, which clearly showed the rebels taking control of two RG-31 Nyalas.
“This is of concern to UNDOF and the Mission is working to recover them,” Guerrero added. Neither she nor Secretary General Ban’s spokesman Farhan Haq specified how the UN planned to retrieve the vehicles. The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade ignored Times of Israel queries about the vehicles believed to be in their possession.
Professor Efraim Inbar, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Stategic Studies, said that while the vehicles didn’t confer a game-changing strategic advantage to the Syrian rebels, they were a platform by which the Yarmouk Brigade could launch potentially deadly surprise attacks against IDF positions along the border.
Such a maneuver would hark back to tactics employed last August, when Sinai-based terrorists launched a sneak attack on an Egyptian army base located near the Gaza Strip and the Israeli border. The attackers killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, hijacked an armored vehicle and careened the juggernaut through the Israeli border crossing. Speeding nearly a kilometer into Israeli territory, the stolen vehicle almost reached a nearby kibbutz, but was stopped in its tracks by a last-ditch airstrike.
In response to inquiries about the possible threat the trucks may pose to soldiers on the Israeli border and nearby communities, an army spokesperson stated that “the IDF is fully confident in its ability to defend Israel’s borders.”
According to a military source, the IDF has strict procedures regulating the entry of UN vehicles from Syria into Israeli territory. The source said that the IDF coordinates with UNDOF, “who inform us in cases when UN vehicles are stolen or go missing in Syria, and we use the details they give us” to deny red-flagged vehicles entry via the Quneitra border crossing.
The IDF source wouldn’t absolutely confirm or deny such coordination with UNDOF regarding the vehicles snatched this spring by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.
Syrian civil war analyst Eliot Higgins of the Brown Moses blog said that the RG-31s would provide the rebels with a secure platform for smuggling arms, fuel or other contraband near the area where the Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian borders converge.
Though the trucks wouldn’t be a major offensive weapon, Inbar, the Begin-Sadat Center expert, suggested that their loss may have dealt yet another blow to the increasingly fragile morale of international peacekeepers on the Golan Heights.
Amid frequent raids on United Nations personnel and near-constant violence between rebel forces and those loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, UNDOF peacekeeping soldiers are said to be growing increasingly concerned about their personal safety and the effectiveness of their mandate. The UNDOF peacekeepers, drawn from the Indian, Austrian and Philippine militaries, are licensed by the UN Security Council to observe the ceasefire lines separating Israeli and Syrian forces on the Golan Heights. They are lightly armed, carrying sidearms and occasionally M-16s, but are not allowed to intervene in the event of third-party violence.
Both Manila and Vienna have expressed concern over the deteriorating security situation on the Israel-Syria border, and officials from both countries have suggested that morale among the peacekeeping forces is understandably low.
Philippine Ambassador to Israel Generoso D. G. Calonge, who has seen 25 countrymen abducted and liberated by Syrian rebels in the past few months, recently said that Philippine soldiers stationed on the Syrian border are likewise “disappointed” by the devolving situation.
A journalist who recently visited UNDOF’s headquarters told The Times of Israel that Austrian soldiers may be eager to sign up for the mission, but they are growing disheartened by their inability to do anything except defend themselves from direct assault. (Despite this, only a handful have returned to Austria out of concern over the growing violence, according to the Austrian newspaper Kurier.)
With the intensification of hostilities along the Israel-Syria border, the Austrian force’s “main task changed from reporting to stay safe themselves,” the reporter said. Deputy UNDOF commander Brig. Gen. Stefan Thaller was said to tell Austrian Defense Minister Gerald Klug during the latter’s recent visit to Camp Faouar that UNDOF’s mission “is only to report to New York [the UN secretary-general's office], and that’s it.”
An UNDOF spokesperson refused to comment on the status of morale among UNDOF troops, and rejected repeated requests to interview force commander Maj. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha about the situation on the ground for the Golan peacekeepers.
Follow Ilan Ben Zion on Twitter.