UN peacekeeping force on the Golan may collapse, French ambassador warns

‘If this happens, Israel will have to urgently find alternatives,’ says former Israeli senior diplomat

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

UN peacekeepers monitor the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border from an army post at Mount Bental in the Golan Heights last July (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
UN peacekeepers monitor the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border from an army post at Mount Bental in the Golan Heights last July (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

The United Nations peacekeeping force deployed on the Israeli-Syrian border has begun taking precautions against the possible use of chemical weapons, and may collapse in the face of a Syrian regime offensive, France’s ambassador to the UN said on Monday.

Gérard Araud told London-based daily Al-Hayat that clashes between Syrian government and opposition forces on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights have sparked fears in Western countries concerning the safety of their nationals serving at the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. Some of these countries, Araud said, may withdraw their men from the force, known as UNDOF, as a result.

“Such a situation may bring about the collapse of UNDOF and the security arrangements between Israel and Syria which it represents,” Araud told Al-Hayat.

The UNDOF peacekeeping force has been tasked since May 1974 with monitoring the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Syria following the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. The UN Security Council is expected to extend UNDOF’s mandate by six months on Wednesday.

Alon Liel, former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said that any withdrawal of UN forces from the Golan Heights would deal a severe blow to the ceasefire between Israel and Syria, depriving Israel of an essential buffer with Assad’s Syria.

Alon Liel, former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Alon Liel, former director general of the Foreign Ministry (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Today UNDOF is more vital than ever,” Liel told The Times of Israel. “If we lose these monitors of the agreement, we will have to put different ‘eyes’ in place.”

Liel said the rise in attacks against UN personnel likely indicated the crumbling of the Assad regime and its loss of territory to opposition forces. The Assad regime, he added, was always committed to the well-being of UN forces on the ground.

Last week, Japan said it may pull its observers out early after a series of attacks on them by Syrian forces.

Meanwhile, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the Security Council on Monday that gas masks and additional armored vehicles were sent to UNDOF as a safety precaution against a possible chemical attack by the Assad regime.

Ladsous briefed the Security Council on the increase in attacks against UN personnel on the Syrian Golan, resulting in the injury of five Austrians, two of them severely, when their convoy was attacked on the way to Damascus airport. He said that the UN evacuation route has been subsequently changed from Damascus to Tel Aviv, Al-Hayat reported.

United Nations Peacekeeping has carried out discussions with member states regarding the possibility of deploying 3,500 peacekeeping troops and observers in Syria, the daily added. Another scenario, cited by an anonymous Western diplomat in New York, is Turkish military intervention in northern Syria.

Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov told his country’s Interfax news service that Russia was prepared to send a peacekeeping force to Syria as part of a broader UN contingent, although such a contingency was impossible given current levels of violence.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry had no comment on the report.

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