It would be natural to assume that the United States would be the focus of such a title. However, the United Nations Blue Berets is the germane topic given the deteriorating situation in Syria, Sinai and Lebanon. Somewhere at the back of our minds we have heard of United Nations forces in these areas. Hardly any of us have asked what they do for Israel, so let me enlighten you, especially about UNDOF in Syria; the impending demise of its mandate; and the necessity to rethink the UN peace operations model.
The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established in May 1974 in the Golan Heights and is supported by the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) established in May 1948, the first ever UN force. UNDOF has a mandate for the separation area between Israel and Syria which is about 80 km long, and between 0.5 to 10 km wide, forming an area of 235 km². There are 1009 UNDOF troops from Austria, Croatia, India, Japan and the Philippines under the command of Major General Iqbal Singh Singha (India) with an annual budget of almost $46 million and assisted by 76 UNTSO military observers.
Calling them troops may be a delirium as they have no authority to exercise firepower; they monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria; and this mandate is renewed every six months; the most recent until 30 June 2013 by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2084 (2012).
The activities of UNDOF that they can no longer undertake because of the Syrian civil-war include: Intervention in cases of entry to the separation area by military personnel from either side, or attempted operations; Assistance to the International Committee of the Red Cross in the passing of mail and people through the area, and in the provision of medical services; Identifying and marking of minefields; Support of the United Nations Children’s Fund activities in the area; and Work to protect the environment.
However they still report on the deteriorating situation that will no doubt lead to the demise of their current mandate. In the eyes of UNDOF the Syrian side of the Golan has seen: The illegal entry of 500 Syrian soldiers and fifty vehicles including tanks into the separation area prompting the IDF to reinforce the border; The shelling by Syrian forces into Israeli territory; The firing of Syrian forces on UNDOF and UNTSO vehicles and the carjacked of some of them; The success of the Syrian rebel forces in controlling nearly all the villages within the area of separation; and The kidnapping but subsequent release of 21 Philippine UNDOF soldiers by the “Martyrs of Yarmouk.”
As the situation deteriorates the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement between Syrian and Israeli Forces after the 1973 Yom Kippur War is brought into question. The Agreement prohibits military forces from entering the separation area but this has clearly been violated by Syria. Syrian civilian authorities are responsible for administering and policing the area of separation, but the rebels are now in control of the area. Neither Israel nor the UN has any agreement with them; and UNDOF lacks a mandate to stop armed groups.
This means that UNDOF is no longer is able to fill the mandate that it has been allotted. The Syrian civil-war poses a risk to the safety of UNDOF and UNSTO forces. This places into doubt the future of UNDOF; exemplified by last weeks announcement by Hervé Ladsous, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations that UNDOF would have a reduced capacity.
The lessons from UNDOF for the United Nations are decisive and manifold especially as many elements of the UNDOF Syrian case and situation also prevail in the UNIFIL case in Lebanon and the MFO case in Sinai. UNDOF, UNTSO and UNIFIL are three of the 15 United Nations global peace operations; these three falling short of their mandates may question the model of all 15.
Such a situation brings to the fore some important questions such as: Does the presence of United Nations forces improve Israel’s national security; Are the mandates of these forces valid due to the domestic changes in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria; Are the numbers, structures and budgets of such forces adequate to fulfill the mandate and mission; Will new forces with different mandates be created if the government in Syria and the Lebanon governance change; What are the civil-military relations among and between the foreign forces, the UN forces’ home countries, the host countries of Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and other forces eg Hamas; Are there alternatives to such foreign forces; and Is there a role for United Nations forces in the peace process with the Palestinians.
No doubt that these and other questions will be handled at forthcoming conferences and workshops; and indeed in debates in the United Nations and in the nations that contribute contingents to the United Nations forces. While these rage, Israel knows that only her own security forces can guarantee her national security.
Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication