UN tiptoes back to Golan as Syrian tensions simmer

Sunday 25/12/2016
UN soldier monitors Israel-Syria border in Israeli-annexed Golan Heights

Beirut - The UN observer force in the Golan Heights has, because of deteriorating security in the area, in­cluding the capture and subsequent release of Fijian peace­keepers, begun a tentative phased return to positions abandoned more than two years ago.

In November, 150 Fijian, Nepa­lese and Indian soldiers with the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) returned to Camp Faouar in northern Quneitra province in the Golan Heights but concerns have been raised that their return could upset the delicate military balance between Syrian troops and rebel groups on the strategic vol­canic plateau that overlooks north­ern Israel.

The relatively lightly armed UN soldiers could find themselves caught in the middle of fighting between loyalist and rebel forces, potentially making them vulner­able to attacks by militants.

Another complicating factor, and one that has sharpened ten­sions in the region, is that Iran and Hezbollah have an interest in the Golan that extends beyond their immediate conflict with rebel groups opposed to their ally, Syr­ian President Bashar Assad.

Hezbollah, under Iranian guid­ance, has constructed a network of bunkers and firing positions in the northern Golan in an apparent effort to open a new front against Israel, say sources close to the Leb­anese group.

In January 2015, Israeli missile-firing drones killed five Hezbollah soldiers, including the son of the group’s former military chief, and General Mohammed Allahdadi of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps near Khan Arnabeh in the Syrian government-held part of the Golan.

It was a clear warning by Israel to Iran and Hezbollah to keep their distance. Sources close to Hezbol­lah said Allahdadi had been tour­ing the new underground military facilities when he was killed.

Israel has said that opening a new front in the Golan against it constitutes a “red line” requiring action if breached.

For now, it is unlikely that Hez­bollah intends to mount any mili­tary action against Israel from the Golan while Assad’s allies are heavily engaged in battle in north­ern Syria. But with the United Na­tions scheduled to send an addi­tional platoon of peacekeepers to the Golan next April, the fragile military balance risks being upset in a volatile slice of Middle East real estate that links Syria’s war to Hezbollah’s long struggle against Israel.

Syrian troops took over Camp Faouar in September 2014 after the UN forces withdrew. The Syrians destroyed the camp and laced the area with landmines to block rebel groups from operating in the area.

The UNDOF was established in 1974 to oversee the ceasefire agree­ment that ended the Arab-Israeli war of the previous year. The Unit­ed Nations patrols and monitors a narrow corridor of territory sepa­rating the opposing forces.

In August 2014, 45 Fijian observ­ers were abducted, then released, by the jihadist group al-Nusra Front, now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Another UN group of 72 Filipinos was besieged by militants but escaped.

Amid the collapsing security situation, the United Nations in September 2014 ordered a UNDOF withdrawal from the Bravo Line — the eastern perimeter of the area of separation. The western side re­mained manned.

Today, in the southern sector, rebel groups are consumed by fac­tional fighting. This has prevent­ed sizeable rebel reinforcements from moving north to assist in a stand-off with government forces between the loyalist-held Khan Arnabeh salient and the rebel-held Beit Jinn area at the foot of Mount Hermon, the highest peak in the region.

The Khan Arnabeh salient allows the Syrian Army to dominate al­most all the territory west to the Al­pha Line, beyond which the Israeli Army is deployed, hampering the rebels’ ability to reach their forces in the proximity of Camp Faouar.

These days, most of the fighting in the northern Golan is limited to daily exchanges of fire and there seems to be little appetite to en­gage in any major confrontation.

“There’s a finely balanced equa­tion in play,” a UN military source said. For the Syrian regime, “the area’s at the bottom of the strate­gic food chain and the priority is to maintain the situation with the absolute minimum of force”, the source said.

However, reintroducing UNDOF into the northern Golan could up­set that balance. The peacekeepers will replace Syrian troops currently deployed in the UN posts, taking advantage of their lofty views over the terrain, freeing Syrian soldiers for new offensives against rebels in the northern Golan.

Rebel forces may have baulked at trying to capture the hilltop UN posts when they were defended by Syrian troops but may feel they have a better chance against the in­coming peacekeepers.