The Incredible Shrinking Buffer

By Bilal Y. Saab – On the eve of a basketball game between the United States and Angola during the 1992 Olympics, a reporter asked NBA superstar Charles Barkley how he felt about the coming matchup. “I don’t know anything about Angola,” Barkley replied, “but Angola’s in trouble.”

Two weeks ago, a Lebanon-based journalist told me that a Salafi Syrian rebel commander gave him a similar response when asked what he thought about the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the multinational force put in place in May 1974 to preserve the cease-fire between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The mere presence of UNDOF, the militant said, would not change his military calculations nor make him more cautious in his fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It should come as a slight relief to peacekeepers that the prominent commander, whose group is active just a few miles away from their area of operations, did not seem to care much about UNDOF’s presence — as opposed to actively trying to target it. But that will hardly be enough to reassure the international forces. Thanks to the raging civil conflict in Syria and the resurgence of extremists in the country and across the Middle East, UNDOF’s role is at serious risk for the first time in its history. The weakening of UNDOF will further destabilize an already dangerously unstable region.

UNDOF’s initial task, in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, was to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian troops from the buffer zone (a geographical area of separation that is approximately 50 miles long and ranges from 9 to 186 miles wide). It would be a gross exaggeration to credit UNDOF alone for the 40 years of peace that held along the border; what has maintained the calm all these years is the simple fact that neither country has wanted a war. Israel, for the most part, benefits from the status quo, particularly since the Golan Heights continues to provide it with strategic depth. Syria’s loss of territory to its historical enemy, although humiliating, was in many ways good for Damascus, too. All in the name of fighting Israel, the Assads were able to justify the consolidation of Alawite rule, build a police state, and eliminate any political opposition. Less concerned about Israeli military designs, the Assad regime has settled for waging proxy warfare against Israel through Hezbollah and Hamas.

But UNDOF’s presence has been much more than symbolic. The force’s role as a neutral and transparent coordinator and communicator between Israel and Syria effectively decreased the chances of escalation during past tense incidents. In January 2003, for example, Israeli forces shot two Syrian soldiers in civilian clothing who had entered the area of separation and were approaching an Israeli fence, killing one and wounding the other. UNDOF intervened, returning the injured soldier and the body to Syria. Syria’s and Israel’s continuous support for the extension of the force’s mandate indicates that both countries know just how much they have to lose from its withdrawal, especially in the current escalation-prone environment. The problem today is that neither party — especially the Syrian government — can ensure the safety and security of the peacekeepers, or control extremist forces on the ground that could harm them.   

Jihadist groups, for the moment, are either unaware of UNDOF or do not currently see fighting it as an urgent priority. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), arguably the strongest extremist group among the rebels, is busy unifying its ranks and consolidating its power in northeast Syria by taking on other radical groups and seizing strategic posts along the Syrian-Turkish border.

But once that process is over, ISIS’ calculations could well change. The group ultimately wants to topple the Syrian regime, and what better way to do that than to draw it into a conflict with Israel? In such a scenario, the jihadists would try to ignite a military confrontation between the two sides in the Golan Heights, likely by attacking Israeli military targets, and hope that it escalates to a wider war. Short of that, if the rebels could simply pressure UNDOF to leave, the chances of a Syrian-Israeli war would shoot up.

It is a much likelier scenario than one might think. The Syrian army is already operating in the buffer zone, in grave violation of the 1974 disengagement agreement between Israeli and Syrian forces. Clashes between the Syrian army and the rebels near the Syrian-Israeli frontier have also resulted in numerous border violations, with several stray shells landing near Israeli communities and military posts, as detailed in a June 12 report [1] by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Israeli military has returned fire in several of those instances — also in violation of the agreement — and on March 5, the Israeli mission to the United Nations delivered a stern letter to the Security Council warning that Israel would not continue to tolerate fighting in the demilitarized zone. In this combustible environment, even a limited Israeli military intervention in Syria could spark a larger conflict involving the Iranians and Hezbollah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, publicly said [2] in May that his forces are ready to liberate the Golan Heights. Until now, Hezbollah has refrained from dramatic escalations in response to Israeli airstrikes in Syria, but it may be saving its fire for when the Assad regime is really in trouble. 

Meanwhile, increasingly active Islamist rebels in the area are already making UNDOF’s job nearly impossible. One UNDOF official, Major General Iqbal Singh Singha, told reporters in June that “troops have come under fire, been abducted, hijacked, had weapons snatched and offices vandalized in the region.” As a result of the deteriorating security situation, UNDOF has been forced to suspend night patrols and reduce its operational footprint, thus constraining its ability to monitor the cease-fire line. Apart from jihadist terrorism, UNDOF will also have to deal with criminal activity by opportunistic rebels who desperately need funds and may target UNDOF to extract concessions from the international community.

The March 2013 kidnapping of 21 Filipino peacekeepers caused the biggest shock and scare to UNDOF’s member states. The peacekeepers were seized by an Islamist rebel unit called the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigade near the border with Jordan and released three days later. The rebels claimed that UNDOF was cooperating with the Syrian regime and demanded that Syrian troops move 12 miles away from the village of Jamla, and that the International Committee of the Red Cross guarantee the safe exit of civilians from the area.

It is not surprising, then, that UNDOF is halfway out the door. Worried about the extremist threat and the safety of their troops, Cambodia, Canada, Japan, Croatia, and Austria have already pulled out of the mission. Before the Syrian uprising, UNDOF employed 2,164 personnel from six countries. Today, there are only 1,166 [3] left (501 from Fiji, 193 from India, 339 from Philippines, 130 from Nepal, and three staff officers from Ireland). Ban recently asked the Security Council to increase the number of troops to 1,250, but such a paltry increase will have little effect; even UNDOF’s pre-uprising size and level of technology were insufficient for it to effectively do its job. As the fighting escalates, the force will likely continue to shrink.  

UNDOF can neither survive in this lawless security environment for long nor effectively fulfill its vital mission. It needs the urgent attention of the international community — something that is understandably but unfortunately focused exclusively on chemical weapons disarmament and reviving the moribund Geneva peace talks. The United States and Russia, along with the other permanent members of the Security Council, need to elevate the profile and mandate of UNDOF and address its operational, logistical, and political challenges.

The United Nations should also create an expert working group that would assess the viability and merits of revising UNDOF’s mandate through a new status-of-forces agreement, overhauling its operational strategy, modernizing its information-gathering capabilities, and, finally, increasing its troop level. The recommendations should be shared with the UN secretary-general, who himself ought to request that the United States, Russia, and other major powers assist in the implementation.    

Even with so many other pressing issues to worry about in Syria, the world cannot afford to neglect UNDOF. Keeping peace on Syria’s borders with Israel and curbing extremism should not be afterthoughts. They should be a major part of the international agenda.

This article originally appeared on Foreign on October 28, 2013 and can be accessed here.