Friday, June 7, 2013

The UN is right to withdraw troops from the Golan, Israel is wrong to bluster about it

UNDOF forces patrol the demilitarized zone
Austria's decision to withdraw 380 peacekeepers from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights should be no cause for Israel to claim it has been "betrayed" by the UN's nearly 40-year-long presence at the border.

Fighting between disparate Syrian rebel groups and Syrian government forces reinforced with Hezbollah militia fighters from Lebanon finally reached the border with Israel in force when a significant battle was fought for the Syrian border city of Quneitra (or Al-Qunaytirah according to Arabic media) this week. Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad claimed victory, though continued skirmishes north of the city have been reported.

A Filipino member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) deployed in the demilitarized zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was injured yesterday when errant artillery and mortar fire from the fighting near Quneitra exploded within an UNDOF compound.

Nearly a month ago, four Filipino peacekeepers were taken hostage and subsequently released by Syrian rebels operating near the border. The Filipino foreign ministry then declared its intention to withdraw its 350 troops from the area, citing an intolerable security environment due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

Yesterday's events prompted the Austrian government to announce its intention to withdraw its nearly 400-strong contingent supporting UNDOF's mission of observing and monitoring the border, citing "an uncontrollable and direct threat, which has increased to an unacceptable level." The withdrawal of the combined 700-man Filipino and Austrian contingents of UNDOF, which numbers 1000 total troops, would raise serious questions over the ability of force to maintain a presence along the 50 mile border between Syria and the Golan Heights. India provides the vast majority of the remainder of the peacekeeping troops and has not yet stated its intentions.

The Guardian's article has several rather petulant quotes from unnamed senior Israeli officials, but I'll focus exclusively on the Israeli government's official statements, which I find to both demonstrate an unreasonable expectation of the UNDOF soldiers deployed on it's de facto border with Syria and hypocrisy over the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry released a statement indicating regret at the Austrian decision to withdraw forces from UNDOF and noted it, "expects the United Nations to uphold its commitment under Security Council Resolution 350 (1974)"

The Israeli browbeating of the UNDOF mission in the Golan Heights is callous and disregards the important fact that the UN and participating nations have been providing an uninterrupted security, observation, and monitoring presence for nearly 40 years. UNSC Resolution 350 was passed in 1974 for a period of 6 months, but has been extended since then. Certainly the UN never expected to be monitoring Israeli and Syrian "disengagement" for four decades. Furthermore, the role of UNDOF is not to protect Israel from the fighting stemming from the Syrian Civil War. UNDOF has no mandate to engage the Syrian army or rebel groups outside of the demilitarized zone, and with rolling battles across the country and border area, there's simply nothing other than hunkering down in their tents that UNDOF forces can do when an artillery and mortar battle rages on a half mile down the road. UNDOF's role has long been to monitor Israeli and Syrian army positions on either side of the border and provide fact-finding and peacekeeping from a third party to prevent escalations between Israel and Syria due to small-scale skirmishing or border misunderstandings. UNDOF has provided this important service for 40 years, while losing 42 peacekeepers. The Austrian and Filipino foreign ministries are correct. The current situation stemming from the Syrian Civil War is far outside the mandate of UNDOF and does indeed pose an uncontrollable threat. UNDOF simply has no mandate to prevent fighting near the border zone. Doing so would require the UN to choose a side in the Syrian Civil War and empower forces under its command to attack enemy forces - a decision that is unlikely to happen, and to which India, Austria, and the Philippines have not consented the use of their troops to. UNDOF forces should be able to pull back to secure, hardened bases in the Golan Heights to prevent unnecessary casualties to a force largely unable to defend itself from errant artillery and mortar fire. Israel's border of the occupied Golan Heights (referred to as Line A by the UNDOF mission) is mined and secured with fences and electronic surveillance to deter and prevent infiltrators from Syria.

Secondly, I'm sure more than a few officials at the UN let out an exasperated sigh after reading Israel's statement imploring the UN to uphold its commitment under UNSC 350, given Israel's refusal to work in good faith toward implementing UNSC 242 requiring Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza Strip. Israel has never shown a willingness to withdraw from the Golan, announced de facto annexation of the territory in 1981, and most recently under Netanyahu implored Syria to relinquish its claim to the Golan Heights.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force has had a thankless job patrolling and monitoring the border between the Israeli-held Golan Heights and Syria. With the current unstable situation, a civil war the UNDOF is ill-prepared for and in which is has not mandate governing it's participation, UNDOF should temporarily withdraw to hardened positions in the Golan Heights (or withdraw entirely). As the extension of UNDOF's mission is facing a vote soon, UN nations should work to clarify UNDOF's role and mission now that the role it has served for 40 years has dramatically changed due to civil war in Syria.


As I was publishing this post, the Guardian published a report that Russia has offered to provide soldiers to reinforce the UNDOF mission, effectively replacing Austrian troops. The article also includes information indicating that Filipino troops may not necessarily withdraw as the military chief supports his soldier's presence.