UN Peacekeepers Return To Patrol Golan Heights, Syrian-Israeli Border

On Thursday August 3rd, United Nations (UN) peacekeepers returned to patrol the frontier between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The peacekeepers, representing the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), were redeployed to the Syria-Israel buffer zone after having to withdraw in September 2014 due to deteriorating security conditions and threats towards the UN mission in the region caused by the Syrian conflict. However, this time the UN patrols would be accompanied by Russian military police.

 According to the report by the Associated Press (AP), UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq addressed reporters, stating that “The ultimate goal for UNDOF is the full return, conditions permitting”, and that a key objective would be to reopen the Quneitra crossing between the two countries. Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, of the Russian General Staff, highlighted that apart from the joint patrols, eight Russian observations points will be set up opposite the UN positions, as a measure to “rule out possible provocations.”

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman acknowledged that after Syrian government forces backed by the Russian military reclaimed the region from anti-government forces, the situation on the Syrian side of the frontier has returned to its former pre-2011 normalcy state, the AP  reported. However, he underlined that as long as Syria adheres to the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel, and that its territory does not develop into a staging ground for Iranian-backed operations, Israel would have, “no cause to intervene or operate in Syrian territory”. The New York Times reported that Russia had announced that an agreement was reached with Israel a day before the deployment of UN patrols to ensure that pro-Iranian fighters do not advance within 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Syria-Israel frontier, though also stating that expecting Iran to fully withdraw from Syria is unrealistic.

The redeployment of the UN peacekeepers to patrol the Syria-Israel frontier, along with the collaboration of the Russian military police, is a welcoming sign. Not only does the presence of the UN signify that stability is returning to the Syria-Israel frontier, the introduction of Russian military police and their observation posts serves as an increased security measure for the peacekeepers, but also as a guarantor regarding Israel’s concerns. This development from Russia’s mediation is commendable, as it dulls the chances of the Israelis clashing with Russia’s allies (Syria and Iran), and ultimately getting Israel directly involved in the already complicated Syrian conflict.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from the Syrians following the six-day Yom Kippur War in 1967, a move not internationally recognized. Following a brokered disengagement agreement, the UNDOF was established in 1974 and deployed to this Syria-Israel frontier to supervise and maintain the ceasefire between both militaries ever since. At just over 1,100 personnel, the UNDOF cites its current contribution of troops from Nepal, Fiji, India, Ireland and Ghana. The UNDOF enforced the truce for decades, but after the fighting from the Syrian conflict spilled over into the region, along with incidents of peacekeepers being abducted by anti-Syrian government or al-Qaida linked militants, the UN ordered the withdrawal of the peacekeepers from their posts in 2014.

As forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad, along with the help of Russia and Iran, have progressively reclaimed south-western territories from rebel and militant groups in recent months, the seven-year civil war seemingly draws to an end. The question would then shift towards how the different parties directly or indirectly involved in Syria can work out a stabilizing strategy between belligerents, before looking at peace-building. The expanding role of UN involvement in Syria is one possibility that can’t be ruled out.