Changing the mandate of UN forces in southern Syria
Beirut- The UN Security Council is expected to discuss a proposal put forth by Jordan and signed off on by the United States and Russia that calls for amending the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in Syria, giving its troops the right to carry arms and use them in defending territory in southern Syria.
Since its deployment on the Syrian-Israeli border after the October War of 1973, UNDOF’s job was to monitor the region and record violations between Syria and Israel. That is no longer enough, however, as several non-state players such as Hezbollah; Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria; and the Khaled Ibn Al Walid Army, an affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS), are thriving on the border area.
The United Nations is becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of security in the border area, topped off by the kidnapping of its troops in autumn 2014. Most UNDOF troops have withdrawn to Israel and only returned to the Syrian side of the border last December.
The idea is to transform UNDOF’s mission — without saying it bluntly — from monitoring the Syrian-Israeli border into policing it militarily with firepower. Ultimately UNDOF would be tasked with keeping al-Nusra, ISIS and Hezbollah away from the safe zone that the Americans want to carve out on the Syrian borders.
This zone, recently signed off on by Amman, Washington and Moscow, would be similar to the one created by the Turks on the northern border last summer. The hope is that it would protect the Jordanian side from non-state players and be used to relocate more than 1.4 million Syrian refugees living in Jordan since 2011.
Details on the zone’s size are being negotiated, with the United States suggesting that it includes all areas from the Daraa countryside up to and including Quneitra and the vicinity of Sweida, capital of the Druze Mountain, while the Russians want it to encompass only rebel-held pockets on the two sides of the Damascus-Daraa Highway.
Moscow is insisting that Damascus raise the Syrian flag in the city of Daraa and reopen both government police stations and schools but refrain from sending tanks, soldiers and warplanes into the safe zone. The Nasib Border Crossing between Syria and Jordan, which is vital for trade between the two countries, would be reopened and placed under authority of Damascus and Amman.
Co-administering the southern front is the only option on the table. No cutting-edge victory will be allowed to happen, neither by the Americans or Russians. The final details of such an agreement, however, including humanitarian aid and the right of return of refugees from Jordan, is to be discussed at the upcoming session of the Astana talks, scheduled for July 4-5, less than a week after the Security Council talks on the subject.
In exchange for legitimising the rebel presence in the south, the Russians hope to get the city of Deir ez-Zor, currently in the hands of ISIS. Such territorial swaps are not new to the Syria war.
Last summer, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan allowed the Russians to take East Aleppo, turning a blind eye to the massive military operation. In exchange, the Russians let Erdogan’s proxies in the Syrian battlefield overrun the border cities of Jarabulus and Azaz, creating the northern safe zone.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were allowed to take Manbij, 30km west of the Euphrates, in exchange for letting Turkish-backed militants take al- Bab, 40km north-east of Aleppo.
The problem with the southern safe zone — the “fifth de-conflict zone” — as being described, is the question of who will man it and where its geographic parameters will fall. The Russians tried convincing the United States that the Syrian Army can do the job of policing the Syrian south but Israel objected, saying that if government troops were restored to full dominance, this would bring Hezbollah and Iran right to their borders.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has promised that Hezbollah would withdraw fully from the southern front but this was clearly not enough assurance for the Israelis and Jordanians, who in as much as they feared Hezbollah, were equally frightened by the rising presence of al-Nusra and ISIS. The idea that is floating now is to empower UNDOF to police the safe zone, carrying arms to protect it from dangerous elements from both sides of the conflict.
If it passes, this could be very dangerous and put the lives of foreigners in UNDOF in high danger. They are strangers to these territories, after all, whereas the militants and government troops are native Syrians who know the terrain well. In a showdown with UNDOF, they would certainly win, whipping up a huge death toll that neither the United Nations nor the international community can shoulder.