UNDOF BREAKDOWN: A PRELUDE TO WIDER CONFLICT

 

1 FEBRUARY 2015

UNDOF BREAKDOWN: A PRELUDE TO WIDER CONFLICT

Military action that led to the death of the U.N. Peacekeeper from Spain on Wednesday 28 January along the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese Demarcation line highlighted the risk of escalation, as repeatedly pointed out by www.unforum.com when cautioning about the sensitivity of that particular area and the need to make every effort to preserve its valuable positive role.

The gradual dysfunctioning of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force in Golan (UNDOF) over the last year needs special attention by the Security Council and the U.N. Secretary-General. A recent military confrontation where officials from Iran and Hezbollah were killed raising tension is not the only indication of a potential wider clash. For the last couple of years, but more recently, several armed fighters from all factions have been moving around a very risky, sensitive area where no side could really claim effective control.

UNDOF has been one of the most successful U.N. peacekeeping operations over the last 40 years. Although peace receives less attention than confrontation, the U.N. Force has accomplished a very special feat when over more than 38 years hardly a shot was fired across the border between two open adversaries, Syria and Israel. There was strict adherence to the rules of engagement until recently when apparently various sides were using it to push their envelope to the edge.

A few months ago, there was an internal squabble within UNDOF when Filipino troops who were about to be taken hostages by a rebel gang fought their way to freedom while Fijian observers were held hostage. That created an open rift when the Philippine command accused the U.N. Commanding Officer, General Singha Singh, of going along with the surrender approach. The Fijians were since freed, reportedly through payment of ransom by a certain Gulf country with the knowledge of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The Philippine contingent by now has withdrawn almost totally; so did some others. While UNDOF is facing a serious threat to its role and existence, it was announced in mid-January that General Singha Singh would be replaced by Major General Purna Chandra Thapa of Nepal. Obviously a change in command is not enough, nor are press statements by the naturally concerned Secretary-General calling for all parties to exercise restraint and abide by established Security Council resolutions.

The Security Council has a special responsibility to deal with threats to peace and security. The dysfunctional breakdown of UNDOF is most likely to lead to a much wider confrontation involving more than Israel and Syria; more than the Al Nusra Front, Islamic State and Syrian Government armed forces; more than Hezbollah and Iranian and Israeli border troops. It could be an uncontrollable mix of all of the above plus just several other groups seeking to influence an already chaotic situation. There is talk of a Russian mediation or a U.S. effort to calm down the inflamed atmosphere.

These are all welcome diplomatic moves but the basic question remains that any military push, any expanded conflict in that particular border area could explode dramatically. Its main population in Druze mountain towns is caught between the two delicate border spots in an area which has been for a long while not just disengaged but also a venue for discreet contact between rhetorically contentious adversaries.

The current status of UNDOF should not be taken lightly. One can only wish that every effort should be made by the U.N. Secretariat leadership and the Security Council to prevent further confrontational gambles which may erupt in a much wider and even more tragic Middle East war.