On 30 June the Mandate of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force on Golan Heights (UNDOF) to monitor the cease fire between Israel and Syria in the wake of the Yom Kippur War will terminate. What is the status of the situation and what are the options ? UNDOF is in crises because Syria is in crises. UNDOF can longer operate in accordance with its mandate because its function and rationale no longer exist and because it is understaffed. The Area of Separation between Israel and Syria is a battleground between the Syrian army and various opposition forces; it is no longer a peaceful Area of Separation and it is no longer being observed by UNDOF. The Syrian army has violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 350 by deploying forces into the ceasefire area. Due to a number of reasons Austria, Japan and Croatia have withdrawn their forces from UNDOF.
The schedule for the United Nations Security council for the month of June has been determined, the dates have been fixed, and the Ambassadors are preparing their notes. On June 10 Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous will brief Council members in consultations on the UNDOF report, on June 13 there is a troop-contributing countries (TCC) meeting, further consultations will take place on June 18 and June 26 is the date set for the Adoption of a Resolution. The UN Secretary General is adamant that the UNDOF mission should continue but is uncertain on who will contribute forces and a mandate for these forces. Russia has offered troops to replace the withdrawn Austrian force. However the Disengagement Agreement and its Protocol between Syria and Israel do not allow for the participation of Permanent Members of the Security Council in UNDOF. The current mandate is inadequate as UNDOF forces lack even the ability to defend themselves in the battlefield. Over the last few months the Syrian opposition on three occasions (6 March and 7 and 15 May) have detained but later released UNDOF troops. Philippine forces in the first two occasions as human shields against attacks from government forces and a Finland national on the third. The Austrian decision to withdraw came after the injury their troops sustained during fighting between the Syrian Army and opposition forces. Austria had already been skeptical of the UNDOF mandate after the EU decided on 27 May not to renew its arms embargo on Syria which in their view created a more unstable situation for UNDOF
The situation is not only unstable for UNDOF but also for Israel. In recent months, spillover from the conflict in Syria has continued to affect the situation in the Golan. Sporadic incidents continue, such as gunfire from the Syrian side straying across the ceasefire line or Syrian shells crashing into the Golan with Israel returning fire. A more significant risk to both UNDOF, Israel and regional stability was the 9 May announcement by Hezbollah that it supported opening a new front against Israel on the Syrian Golan and the claim that Syria would provide Hezbollah with game-changing weapons.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has several options. It could display greater engagement with the TCCs in the lead-up to the mandate renewal, including with over twenty TCCs to the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) which regularly contributes military observers to UNDOF. In the resolution renewing the UNDOF mandate, the UNSC could: 1) roll over UNDOF’s mandate for an additional six months; 2) expand upon the acknowledgment in resolution 2084 that the Syrian crisis had begun to manifest itself in UNDOF’s area of separation by elaborating on the impact of events in Syria on UNDOF’s ability to operate; 3) further strengthen the language to call for the elimination of obstacles to UNDOF’s freedom of movement in the fulfillment of its mandate; and 4) further strengthen the language regarding the safety of UNDOF personnel and encourage the mission to continue to identify ways to mitigate risks. Whatever the decision it will be hard to keep the Syrian conflict and the Golan Heights as discrete issues.
This is the way the United Nations works; mandates that lack teeth to make peace; only mandates to monitor peace or war; forces of the size and equipment to observe but not intervene. The United Nations debates and offers condemnations of violations of agreements and mandates expressing grave concerns; yet the United Nations lacks any intention, ability or capability to take any further steps beyond such verbal condemnations and beyond forces that only observe. Despite this the United Nations insists that UNDOF contributes to stability in the region in the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Over the decades Israel has offered mixed views on the United Nations and other International Forces; Israel does not in principle oppose the notion and presence of United Nations and other International Forces; however ultimately Israel’s security is determined by and relies on the Israel Defense Force.
Dr Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-IlanUniversity and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication