Wider conflict feared as Syria’s war spills into UN-monitored ceasefire zone

Jan 31 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring
David Cliff, London
Last month, the routine six-monthly extension of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights was issued alongside expressions of serious concern at escalating violence in its area of operations and repeated, increasingly brazen violations of the 1974 Israeli-Syrian ceasefire pact that led to its formation. The violations in question have taken several forms. Syrian military forces have been observed conducting operations inside the UNDOF-monitored ‘area of separation’, where no military forces from either side are allowed, and both Israeli and Syrian forces have fired across the north-south ceasefire line known as the ‘Alpha’ line, which divides the area of separation from Israeli-occupied Golan. (See here for a map of the UNDOF deployment area.) An attack on a UN convoy on 29 November, which left a number of UNDOF personnel wounded, has raised the level of concern still further.
These concerns, set out in UN Security Council resolution 2084 (of 19 December 2012), reflect mounting fears that the ongoing civil war in Syria could seriously destabilise the Golan Heights region and possibly lead to the breakdown of the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire agreement altogether.
According to the most recent report of the UN secretary-general on the activities of UNDOF (issued on 27 November 2012), since mid-2012 Syrian armed forces had ‘expanded their deployment and carried out military activities, including security operations, in the UNDOF area of operations, ostensibly to contain domestic unrest and the activities of armed elements.’ The report lists a number of specific incidents where Syrian military fire had impacted on the western (i.e. Israeli-controlled) side of the Alpha line, as well as incidents of eastward fire from Israeli forces.
Some of these were witnessed by UNDOF directly. On 25 September, for instance, UNDOF personnel observed four Syrian mortar rounds detonate in Israeli-occupied Golan. On 12 November, in response to a Syrian mortar round that landed near an Israeli observation post to the east of the ceasefire line, UNDOF witnessed two Israeli tank shells fired across the Alpha line. On other occasions UNDOF personnel observed evidence of across-the-line firing, including being shown craters and unexploded ordnance on the Alpha side by Israeli personnel. As stressed by the UN, firing by either side across the line represents a ‘serious violation’ of the ceasefire deal between the two countries.

But in a region as volatile as this corner of the Levant is at present, with armed elements from all sides in the mix, verifying claims and assigning responsibility can sometimes be far from a matter of letting appearances speak for themselves. The UN report records an accusation by Syrian authorities on 18 November that Israeli fire across the ceasefire line had killed two Syrian soldiers and injured two more. Israel, for its part, said it was targeting a Syrian armed forces position within the area of separation after Syrian forces there had fired on an Israeli patrol vehicle. But the Syrian armed forces denied having done so, claiming rebel fighters were responsible for the shooting, intending to provoke a response from the Israelis. UNDOF was able to verify that the Israeli vehicle in question had sustained six bullet impacts, but not able to say who held the gun that fired them.

Clashes between Syrian regime forces and Syrian rebels within UNDOF’s area of operations are perhaps even more serious. The 27 November report by the UN notes that recent months had seen ‘numerous clashes’ between pro- and anti-regime forces in the eastern ‘area of limitation’ (one of which lies on each side of the separation zone), and also that ‘sporadic, often intense, firefights between the Syrian security forces and armed members of the opposition’ had taken place within the area of separation itself. These include serious incidents between 18-23 July and 25-26 September involving an influx of Syrian military personnel into the area of separation. On 31 October, the UN said, Syrian armed forces launched a ‘massive offensive’ in part of the area of separation, ‘reportedly to neutralize up to 400 armed members of the opposition’ who had gathered there. Then, on 3 November, ‘they launched a renewed ground offensive...employing at least four main battle tanks, mortar fire and two armoured personnel carriers...in the vicinity of Baraika and Bir Ajam inside the area of separation.’

UNDOF’s security is itself under threat. The UN secretary-general’s November report detailed incidents of Syrian armed forces fire impacting close to UNDOF personnel and facilities. On occasion, personnel from the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO, observers from which are attached to UNDOF) have also reportedly come under fire while in clearly-marked UN vehicles. ‘There have also been instances when Syrian armed forces personnel pointed their guns in a threatening manner at UNDOF personnel,’ the report notes, including on 25 September when the UNDOF Force Commander was stopped by four Syrian soldiers at a checkpoint and on 21 November when two UNTSO personnel were ‘detained and threatened at gunpoint by Syrian soldiers during a planned inspection of a Syrian position in the area of limitation on the Bravo [Syrian] side.’
More seriously, on 29 November an UNDOF vehicle came under fire close to Damascus airport, leaving five UNDOF personnel who were rotating out of the mission wounded. Shortly after that incident, the UN’s head peacekeeping official, Hervé Ladsous, told the press that UNDOF would be reinforcing its security, ‘most notably with armoured vehicles’, and that more political advisors would be sent ‘to analyse the situation on the ground.’ There were no plans to alter the size of the force (currently numbering just over 1,000 troops) he said, though resolution 2084 has changed the secretary-general’s reporting requirements to every 90 days, so closer attention is now set to be paid to the mission—and by extension, it can be surmised, to whether the ongoing deployment of that many troops in the Golan Heights is more or less correct, or inadequate, or perhaps reckless.

There are, though, no signs of reducing the mission’s size in the face of the deteriorating security situation—much less withdrawing entirely. Indeed, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put it in his 27 November report: ‘Under the prevailing circumstances, I consider the continued presence of UNDOF in the area to be essential.’

As with the short-lived UN Supervision Mission in Syria, however, UNDOF is not mandated (nor, accordingly, is it sufficiently equipped) to reverse the current trend in hostilities, which may yet grow in seriousness. In Mr Ban’s reckoning, the incidents of firing across the ceasefire line demonstrate ‘the potential for escalation of tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, and jeoparadize the ceasefire between the two countries and the stability of the region.’ There is, it seems, a sense within UN headquarters that the ceasefire is more fragile now than at any time in the recent past. As the secretary-general went on: ‘I am concerned that the presence of armed members of the opposition and the ongoing military activities of the Syrian security forces have the potential to ignite a larger conflict between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, with grave consequences.’

All that is to say nothing of the situation in Syria itself. There, civil war continues to rage, talk of the potential use of chemical weapons rumbles on (prompting Israel to this week move at least one of its ‘Iron Dome’ missile batteries to the north, and to strike Syrian targets), and if—or when—Assad falls then UN officials, and possibly even UN troops, may yet become key actors in a transition that is almost sure to be long, ugly and uncertain.

Last changed: Jan 31 2013 at 7:39 PM