Analysis |

Foreigners Without a Legion: Golan Peacekeeping Force Lacks Any Real Power

The momentary tension around UNDOF may pass until its mandate is renewed in December - but it is also possible that the extension will be accompanied by difficult conditions for the Israeli side.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Before being appointed Head of Mission and Force Commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) last summer, Major General Iqbal Singh Singha commanded a division of the Indian army.

Currently, there are still around a thousand officers and soldiers in the force he heads (and doesn’t exactly command). They are from Europe (until recently Austria and Croatia) and Asia (India, the Philippines and until recently, Japan).

But the blue helmets in the Golan Heights aren’t really a “force,” not only because their name - Disengagement Observer Force - reflects a compromise between the Syrian demand in 1974 for an observer-only force, and the Israeli demand at the time for a force.

Nowhere in the world is a uniformed force more helpless than the soldiers stationed with the UN delegations. They barely have the powers of municipal inspectors. They are not a foreign legion in the style of the well-known French Foreign Legion – they are a collection of units that do not constitute a legion.

In two weeks' time, on June 30, UNDOF’s mandate – which is renewed every six months by the UN Security Council – is due to expire. Its extension is conditional upon the agreement of both Israel and Syria and approval of the UNSC; that is to say, a Russian-American compromise.

The Russians and the Syrians have still not stated whether they will break with the convention of the last 39 years and oppose the continued stationing of UNDOF, which supervises and patrols the disengagement zone and limits military deployment. It is possible that the momentary tension around UNDOF may pass until the next time the mandate is due to be renewed in December. But it is also possible that this time the extension will be accompanied by difficult conditions for the Israeli side.

These include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s idea of sending a Russian unit in place of the Austrian peacekeepers who withdrew from the Golan, and also the ratification of the UN position that sees the Golan Heights as occupied territory that is only held by Israel until a peace agreement is reached. At the end of January, when the UN discussed the situation in the Middle East (with an emphasis on the Palestinian issue) in the presence of “His Excellency Riad al-Malki, the foreign minister of the Palestinian observer state,” the Syrian ambassador called for the Golan to be returned, and was annoyed that Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, ignored this in his briefing to the Security Council.

The permanent catch of UN forces is that they lack true force, unless certain states decided that certain issues necessitate use of force – and in these cases they usually can manage without the help of the UN. It's more a matter of diplomatic convenience and routine: A state is better off refraining from unilateral actions, unless approved by the UN, but even a UN refusal to approve an action won't stop a state or an alliance of countries to carry out a military action when they deem it necessary.

The victors in WWII hoped to establish a form of world government and a world army that would be in direct contrast to the impotence of the League of Nations, which was established after WWI, and contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War. This project never had a chance, since the United States - Soviet Union conflict divided the UN founder states, which were quick to establish regional pacts such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The multinational force sent to Korea misled nobody, even though the Soviets boycotted a crucial vote and allowed the Americans to wrap themselves in a UN flag.

A certain benefit

The observers of the Israeli-Arab Armistice for 64 years now, have been around longer than any other peacekeeping force. The observers in the demilitarized or disputed territories have never prevented any terror attack or retaliation, nor have they prevented escalation to war. They have benefited intelligence for both sides, being allowed – like journalists – to tour enemy countries. Therefore, just like foreign correspondents', the UN troops were always a target for those who wished to enlist spies - which also explains why the foreign forces liaison units were annexed to the military intelligence, as was the IDF spokesperson until the 1973 war.

There is no armistice since the Six Day War, but the observers are still there, often as reinforcement of UNDOF. The difference between the 77 observers and the one thousand strong force of General Singha is due to their different functions. The observers are officers on loan from their armies to the UN. UNDOF, on the other hand, is constructed of battalion-sized units who are sent for a specific period and then replaced by other units from their army. There are also Intermediate situations, as seen in Canadian and Scandinavian forces, when officers promoted in their armies are often sent to serve in the UN forces. General Singha, for example, served last decade for two years as logistics officer of the UN delegation to Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Truly combatant missions of UN forces, such as in the Balkan states, are a rarity. UNDOF is a much more typical force, whose declared role is to follow and report breaching of agreements. Unofficially, such forces can be a channel of military communication between neighbors, used to prevent escalation as a result of a local incident or a misunderstanding. Beyond that UNDOF has no added value in itself – its value depends solely on Israel and mostly on Syria, which is the side that's not pleased with the current situation in the Golan Heights. This was also the situation on the Israeli-Egyptian border between the 1956 War and the Six Day War, until Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser demanded that the observers be removed.

If the Syrian regime needs a pretext – for inner political purposes – not to breach the agreements, UNDOF is a convenient excuse – a renewal of fighting would cause complications not only with Israel, but also with the UN. When the balance of considerations and interests shifts, UNDOF won't make any difference. In any case, it cannot interfere in aerial skirmishes or missiles fired above the troops' heads or with anything concerning Lebanon.

UNDOF's younger, but more scarred brother, UNIFIL, was established on the Lebanese-Israeli border, following the 1978 Litani Operation. The force is a good example, of how misled the Israeli government's decisions can be. Some minds in Jerusalem preferred Syrian rule in South Lebanon, because the Syrians interfered in the Lebanese civil war, supporting the Christians against the Palestinians. These officials wanted a quiet front for egotistical reasons. They preferred UNIFIL to a new toothless force of the UN, manned by soldiers from countries which weren't pro-Israeli.

The most articulate supporter of this approach was the head of Intelligence, Maj.Gen. Shlomo Gazit. Still, Prime Minister Menahem Begin was businesslike and cool, at best, when it came to Gazit; he didn't inform him in the autumn of 1977 that he was holding secret contacts in Morocco with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, through the Mossad and Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan. Gazit was close to Dayan, but too busy to find time to meet with him. He still insists that if such a meeting had taken place, Dayan would have briefed him of his meeting with Hassan Tohami, Sadat's delegate to the talks, and would have prevented the embarrassment of Military Intelligence's failure to fathom Sadat's true intentions on the eve of his visit to Jerusalem.

Begin never forgave Gazit – who was in charge of media and Hasbara - for opposing the former's request to respond in the Knesset to Prime Minister Golda Meir's speech. More than the rejection of the request, Begin was insulted by Gazit's declaration that MK Begin is no different than Communist Party MK Meir Vilner, echoing David Ben Gurion's famous "Without Herut and Maki," which lumped together Begin and Vilner's opposing parties. When the main supporters of Gazit's line, the foreign and defense ministers, as well as the chief of staff, refrained from meeting Begin, Gazit was left alone. Begin chose UNIFIL, whose all too expected failure to deal with the PLO led to the First Lebanon War.

The UN cannot deal with every regional conflict; one reason is that states signing an agreement with a military appendix (such as Israel and Egypt), prefer a force that isn't subordinate to the UN Security Council; another is that the current era is defined by the weakening of central governments and the rise of movements and organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban, Al Qaida and others. These have the power to destroy without the responsibility of enforcing quiet. Pacts between states are processed in case of disagreements to the UN, but if governments cannot force organization in their territory to refrain from attacks – since a government fighting rebels finds it hard to defend itself – the significance of cease fire agreements and disengagement accords is drastically decreased.

The most dangerous situation for Israel in the Golan Heights is a similarity of interests between the Syrian regime and its adversaries: Bashar Assad might object to the renewal of the UNDOF's mandate or present severe conditions with the support of Russia. The world jihad groups might act against Israeli targets from the Golan Heights, fully aware that the Golan's annexation by Israel is not accepted internationally, not even by the U.S. UNDOF is of no use in a war zone – when the cannons sound, the observers run for cover. Still, if the U.S. pressures Israel and Syria to renew negotiations and reach an agreement including Israeli withdrawal in return for a peace agreement that would see limitations and mutual demilitarization agreements, this would call for a new UN force, the son of UNDOF.

United Nations peacekeeping soldiers from Austria driving past an observation tower near the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, on Israeli-occupied Golan Heights June 12, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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