Opinion: as UN peacekeepers return from and deploy to the Golan Heights the role of Irish soldiers in the region has changed dramatically in recent years
The Defence Forces 56 Infantry Group part of the UN peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights is currently returning home and being replaced by the 57 Infantry Group. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established in 1974 following the disengagement agreement between Israeli and Syrian forces.
Although Israel continues to occupy a large portion of the Golan, both parties agreed an 80km long and narrow zone of separation which would be monitored by the UN peacekeeping force. Prior to the outbreak of war in Syria, this was a relatively uneventful UN mission, but that has now changed dramatically. UNDOF is small in terms of size, at just over 1,100 personnel, and Ireland has contributed around 138 personnel annually since 2013. Given the overall uncertain situation in the region, it might well be asked what is the point of putting Irish forces in harm's way?
UNDOF remains an important mission in an area of significant strategic importance. Under the disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel, UNDOF is the only military presence allowed in the area of separation. It is one of the last traditional so called UN Chapter 6 missions that may only use force in self-defence and as such is reliant on the co-operation of the parties to the conflict. Therein lies one of its main conundrums: how can UNDOF rely on Syria to fulfil its part of the agreement in the current circumstances?
From RTÉ News, Irish UN peacekeepers return home in October 2017 following a six month deployment in Golan Heights
The war in Syria has spilled over into the UN zone on a number of occasions. As it stands, the Irish troops have not deployed fully along the Syrian side of the area of separation since 2014. Although most commentators will highlight the out of date mandate as the critical weakness in the mission, the reality is that the volatile situation on the ground has been the most pressing problem. The ceasefire between Syria and Israel has been violated on a number of occasions and Syria has placed heavy weapons in the area monitored by the UN in contravention of the agreement. There have also been Israeli and Syrian air strikes.
The UN’s options are limited in the circumstances. Established as a Syria based mission, how UNDOF operates, including the use of enhanced equipment or new technologies, is subject to the disengagement agreement. Any changes must be approved by both Syria and Israel and proposals to do so have been blocked in the past.
Both Israel and Syria still want UNDOF to remain and would prefer a full deployment of the peacekeeping force along both the Israeli and Syrian sides of the ceasefire line. The war in Syria and the unstable situation on the ground meant that this was not possible in recent times so UNDOF remains a dangerous mission. The spillover from the Syrian war is a major threat. Recently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu made a rare visit to the Golan, much of which is still occupied by the Israelis. He asserted that "Israel is prepared for any scenario and I wouldn’t suggest to anyone that they test us".
From RTÉ Radio One's News At One, Paul Reynolds reports from the Golan Heights where Irish troops are on United Nations duty
There has been serious clashes between armed opposition forces and pro-government forces in the bravo side of the ceasefire line that is the responsibility of Syria. Some of these opposition forces are listed as terrorist groups by the UN Security Council and are affiliated with ISIS. Such groups would have no respect for the role of UN peacekeepers and would not hesitate to attack UNDOF. The possibility of being caught in the crossfire between Israel and Syria also remains a serious risk.
Despite the fact that the troops on the ground were forced to redeploy in 2014, UNDOF still contributes to stabilty in the region. While its observation role was thus limited, it continued to play a key role in liaising with the parties to prevent a flareup in the area.
Irish troops are well equipped and trained for the mission. They have good armoured protection and mobility capabilities. This was especially evident when they effectively rescued their surrounded Filipino colleagues in 2014. While Irish troops are prepared for any scenario, UNDOF’s mission is not a combat role such as being undertaken by UN forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Irish government was correct to agree to send troops to the Golan and maintain them there despite the deteriorating situation. However, then Minister for Defence Simon Coveney made it clear in 2014 that Ireland "would not move into the territory of peace enforcement’ or become involved in the civil war in Syria".
Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict has been pivotal and this is reflected in the changed situation on the ground in the Golan and other parts of Syria today. Ireland’s support for this mission is critical to its long term viability. UNDOF does not face the challenges associated with a protection of civilian mandate and inadequate service support problems associated with other UN missions.
While the overall security situation appears to be improving, an immediate challenge for the Irish contingent will be deploying in the area of operations previously evacuated for security reasons. There was no option but to redeploy at the time, due to legitimate concerns about extraction and protection. Nevertheless, many now feel that full deployment of Irish forces back in the area of separation is overdue.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ