Kidnapping of Peacekeepers Unprecedented for Golan Heights Force

On Wednesday, Syrian rebels seized 21 Filipino members of a United Nations peacekeeping mission from a disputed demilitarized buffer zone between Israel and Syria that has been monitored by U.N. forces since 1974. The border zone in the Golan Heights had been largely unaffected by Syria’s uprising until now, and the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has not experienced a similar incident in the decades since it was formed. The group claiming responsibility for the kidnapping said the peacekeepers would not be released until the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from a nearby village where clashes occurred over the weekend. Bruce Jones, director and senior fellow of the NYU Center on International Cooperation, and senior fellow and director of the Managing Global Order Program at the Brookings Institution, spoke with Trend Lines about the difficulty of conducting U.N. peacekeeping missions in conflict zones. “UNDOF is one of the classic U.N. peacekeeping forces in that it is an interposition force,” he said. “It is designed to literally sit between two armies in a contested territory and hold that ground. It is not designed as a fighting force.” “This particular mission has fairly strict restrictions on what it can do,” he continued, and its mandate has not changed despite the civil war going on around it. Only the U.N. Security Council can change “the mandate and purpose and composition of a force,” Jones said. “The purpose of UNDOF is to monitor and patrol the Golan Heights, to forestall Israel versus Syria challenges,” he said. UNDOF is unarmed and is not involved in Syria’s separate uprising against Assad’s government. There is precedent for the Security Council changing the mandate of a peacekeeping force, he noted. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), he said, “was a relatively passive force” until the Security Council “changed its mandate in important ways and hugely beefed up its fighting capacity” after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Jones said he does not expect the Security Council to change UNDOF’s mandate in light of the kidnapping, however, and it will likely continue to operate under restrictive rules of engagement. He explained that the U.N. secretary-general sets rules of engagement according to the mandate the Security Council has set for the peacekeeping force. “If the Security Council mandates them to sit peaceably between two parties, he gives them the rules of engagement to do that,” he said. At the same time, however, the governments contributing forces to the mission have their own rules for their contingent forces regarding how to respond to particular circumstances, so the U.N.’s rules of engagement are not actually binding in real terms, Jones said. Jones said that the Syrian insurgents made a major mistake in kidnapping the peacekeepers, causing international actors to question the rebels’ agenda. As the international community decides next steps for Syria, it is relevant to think about the fact that there are already two peacekeeping forces in the region, Jones said. If Syria collapses, the U.N. could deploy a multinational force building on the existing presence of UNIFIL and UNDOF in the region. “These are antiquated peacekeeping forces in some senses, but they have capabilities. And UNIFIL is a serious fighting force,” he said. “If the situation changes and the council is looking at some kind of rapid deployment force into Syria, there is a significant bridgehead on which to base that.” Photo: Peacekeepers of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force patrol the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel (U.N. photo by Wolfgang Grebien).

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