The final days of the UN’s Golan peacekeepers?
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The final days of the UN’s Golan peacekeepers?

As the war in Syria intensifies, the international peacekeepers’ mission and the reality on the ground have grown increasingly incompatible

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Japanese UNDOF troops, withdrawn from the Golan Heights in January 2013, during happier times (Photo credit: Haim Azulay/ Flash 90)
Japanese UNDOF troops, withdrawn from the Golan Heights in January 2013, during happier times (Photo credit: Haim Azulay/ Flash 90)

Peacekeepers, the blue-helmeted warriors of the United Nations, know what to do when two attacking armies begin to advance toward one another. They leave. Quickly.

They also know what to do when two formerly warring nations are committed to the cessation of violence, as had been the case in the Golan Heights since May 31, 1974. They facilitate the flow of apples, students and brides. They calmly survey the stillness of a landscape governed by mutually accepted agreement.

When there is an aggressor, however, when one side seeks to keep the peace and the other is devoted to its violation, as is now the case on the Golan Heights, the peacekeepers are asked to fill a role that they are, perhaps ironically, ill equipped to handle — actually keeping the peace.

On the Golan Heights, several experts say, the worsening situation is likely to lead to one of three options.

The first would see the retreat of the Golan peacekeepers, known as the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, and the collapse of what has been a very successful peacekeeping program.

The second would see a shift in the force’s mandate, equipping it with more firepower and more authority, along the lines of the bolstered United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL.

The third would see a weakened force – much like UNIFIL before the Second Lebanon War of 2006 – that turns a blind eye to low-profile terror activity on one side of the border while vigorously documenting the violations by the IDF which are sure to follow.

The post-Yom Kippur War arrangement that brought UN troops to the Golan Heights, both sides stipulated, “is not a peace agreement. It is a step toward a just and durable peace on the basis on UN resolution 338 dated 22 October 1973.”

At first, the UN force — headed by Maj. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha of India and comprised predominantly of troops from Austria and the Philippines — was largely untouched by the uprising

The disengagement agreement laid out the lines beyond which the two armies could not advance or station forces. It drew a corresponding line in the sky, beyond which planes could not fly. It stated that all prisoners of war were to be repatriated within 24 hours of signing and all dead soldiers were to be returned home within 10 days.  And it called for the creation of UNDOF, to be mobilized “immediately,” with the understanding that “Israel and Syria will scrupulously observe the cease-fire on land, sea and air.”

This endured for the better part of four decades, even though the enmity between Syria and Israel never ebbed and the two clashed directly and through proxy forces on the territory of their chaotic mutual neighbor, Lebanon. The Golan border was long Israel’s quietest frontier.

But that began to change after March 2011, as Syria began its descent into civil war. At first, however, the UN force — headed by Maj. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha of India and comprised predominantly of troops from Austria and the Philippines — was largely untouched by the uprising.

But the conflict slowly crept closer to the border region. The zone known as the Area of Limitation, where Syrian government troops were not allowed to enter by the terms of the cease-fire agreement, eventually became a battleground between Syrian army regulars and anti-regime guerrillas. Even the Area of Separation, a strip that is 46 miles long and between six miles and 200 yards wide, was violated by rebel troops. UNDOF soldiers have been carjacked, stripped of their side-arms and shot at.

In November, five peacekeepers were wounded in Damascus while rotating out of the country. In January, Japan withdrew its 31 troops and 15 support staff from the mission, citing the worsening security situation. On February 28, Croatian president Ivo Josipovic, concerned by publications regarding the country’s role in arming the rebel forces — the New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia has been buying surplus Croat arms and selling them to the rebels — announced the withdrawal of his country’s 97 servicemen, further depleting the 1,011-person force. And on March 6, rebels from an outfit calling itself the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigade ambushed, kidnapped and eventually released 21 Philippine UNDOF troops.

These circumstances, further complicated by cross-border fire by Syrians into Israel and the IDF’s retaliatory fire, and the ever-present threat of a chemical weapons strike, today deeply imperil UNDOF’s mission and place the divided Security Council, a body unwilling to intervene in the civil war, in the position of choosing whether or not to shed blood — that of potential assailants and that of its own troops — in pursuit of keeping the peace.

On Tuesday, the UN official in charge of peacekeeping operations, Hervé Ladsous, briefed the Security Council behind closed doors on the situation in the Golan Heights. Afterwards, he conceded that UNDOF has had “to adopt a posture which is somewhat more static” — which is to say the force no longer patrols at night. In addition, he said, “We have had to reduce somewhat the footprint of UNDOF in the Golan Heights” — which is to say that several of the force’s most vulnerable observation posts have been abandoned.

For the moment, the Security Council has decided to bolster the troop presence, if possible with Arabic-speaking soldiers, and to deploy more armored personnel carriers.

‘They’re doing their job. No one thought they would be able to stop the Syrian army’

On June 30, 2013, though, the mission’s mandate expires. For the past 39 years its renewal every six months has been a matter of course. This year, with the situation in Syria growing ever more complex, and with the UN’s history of bowing out in the face of violence — See under: UNAMIR, which was stripped of its power after Belgium withdrew its forces from pre-genocide Rwanda in the wake of the murder of 10 of its troops in April 1994 — the future of the disengagement regime on the Golan Heights is very much in doubt.

An UNDOF observation post in the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights (Photo credit: Flash 90)
An UNDOF observation post in the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights (Photo credit: Flash 90)

For Israel, some suggest, the best possible development would be a change in the nature of the peacekeeping force. “As it stands now it is a force that was invited at the behest of both sides,” said Baruch Spiegel, a reserve brigadier general and a former commander of the IDF liaison unit in charge of communication with the UN forces. “Its job is to oversee the separation agreement.”

A former colleague was more blunt. “They have no authority and no ability to handle what’s going on,” said Shlomo Brom, another reserve brigadier general,  now a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies. “They are there in order to be there.”

Brom described the force as professional and superior to most other international peacekeeping forces. “They’re doing their job,” he said. “No one thought they would be able to stop the Syrian army.”

There are, however, many levels of peacekeeping enforcement, and the UNDOF mandate — that of an observer force — makes it one of the most passive forces in an area that is anything but.

“UNDOF is a proper symmetrical peacekeeping force,” said Spiegel. “If they’re attacked, they’ll raise a (white) flag and go off to captivity. They’re not an active force but an observer force.”

The UN force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, which is positioned several miles west of UNDOF, is of a slightly different nature. The force was not invited to the region but rather sent there by the Security Council after Operation Litani — an IDF raid that came in response to a March 1978 Palestinian terror attack from Lebanon that claimed 35 lives. At first the force’s mandate was to oversee the Israeli retreat from Lebanese territory.

After Israel’s UN-sanctioned retreat from Lebanon in 2000, and again after the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the subsequent UN Resolution 1701, the force was ordered to, among other tasks, help the Lebanese army clear southern Lebanon “of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL deployed in this area.”

There is a genuine fear that any sort of re-evaluation, in light of the new circumstances, could set off a chain reaction that ends with the departure of the UN force

That is a polite way of saying “help confront Hezbollah” — a task that, the Security Council realized, was not an attainable goal without a robust force. “There was a remodeling of the UN force in 2006,” said Alan Baker, a former senior legal officer in the UN secretariat and the Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “It was given far sharper teeth.”

In fact Chapter 7 of the UN charter grants the Security Council near carte blanche in the measures it takes “to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Articles 41 and 42 give the UN body the option of doing everything from stopping the mail service to “operations by air, sea, or land forces.”

In advance of the June expiry date, there is a chance that UNDOF’s mandate will be changed to something closer to the UNIFIL model, Baker said — but he cautioned that tinkering could come with a price.

“The mandate might be sent back to the UN for re-examination, which could place the whole regime of disengagement in danger,” he said, adding that “there is a genuine fear” that any sort of re-evaluation, in light of the new circumstances — in which there are no longer two parties to the disengagement agreement — could “set off a chain reaction” that ended with the departure of the force.

It’s also possible that a weakened and imperiled force would serve as a curtain behind which terror groups could act — as was the case on October 7, 2000, when Hezbollah forces killed three IDF soldiers and seized their bodies, and UNIFIL troops neither intervened nor revealed that an Indian contingent had videotaped the Hezbollah troops transporting the slain soldiers.

Spiegel, the former liaison commander, concerned primarily by the possibility of a complete departure of the UNDOF troops, described such a scenario as “very dangerous.” It would necessitate an Israeli response, he said.

“We might have to go in,” he said. “It would be a new situation.”

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