THE LAST OF THE 115 members of the Defence Forces taking part in the long-term UNDOF mission to the Golan Heights area of Syria arrived safely at their new headquarters over the weekend.
The 12 officers and 103 soldiers of various ranks will spend six months in the region, serving alongside troops from India, Fiji and the Philippines.
It was initially planned that the deployment would take place at the start of the month, but the mission was postponed for around three weeks at the request of the UN due to administration problems.
So, why are Irish troops being sent there? TheJournal.ie takes a look…
What is the UNDOF mission?
The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force was set up in 1974 to police the ceasefire between Israeli and Syrian troops — in the Golan Heights region between the two countries. It followed the Arab-Israeli war of the previous year, and the subsequent signing by both sides of a ‘disengagement agreement’. The mission has been ongoing for the last 39 years, with troops from various countries taking part — supervising and helping implement that ceasefire deal.
The UNDOF mandate has been renewed every six months over that period, but this will be the first Irish involvement.
Is the area dangerous?
According to the UN, the situation “remained quiet” until recently, with “both parties cooperating fully” with the mission. However, the recent escalation of the conflict in Syria has made the UNDOF troops’ task more difficult: From the mission website:
There has been a rise in the nature, number and gravity of incidents involving United Nations personnel on the ground, including abductions of UNDOF and UNTSO observers, the direct and indirect firing at them by the Syrian Arab armed forces or armed members of the opposition, the theft of UN weapons and ammunition, vehicles and other assets, and the looting and destruction of facilities.
It’s worth pointing out: the Irish troops do not have any mandate to get involved in the internal Syrian conflict.
What about chemical weapons?
The chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta have been dominating the international headlines since they took place in August. The UN voted at the weekend to order the destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical arms, following intensive US-Russian negotiations, and disarmament teams are now preparing to enter the country.
The Irish troops took part in a week-long refresher course on how to deal with chemical and biological weapons at the Glen of Imaal in Wicklow prior to heading out. Additionally, an arrangement is in place with the Israeli Government whereby the Defence Forces personnel will evacuate across the border in the event of any chemical attack.
Irish troops on parade [Photocall Ireland]
How do the soldiers taking part feel about heading to such a troubled region?
According to Lieutenant Colonel Brendan Delaney, who is commanding the Irish contingent on their mission, the approach that the troops take is the same heading on any overseas deployment:
“I was in Lebanon in 2006 when the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict broke out — that started off as quite benign and, well… things can escalate quite quickly.
“We always try to maintain what we call ‘situational awareness’: we see what’s going on, we try and anticipate problems and then behave accordingly.”
Lower down the ranks, soldiers echo their commander’s assessment, with Corporal Claire Powell telling TheJournal.ie “There is an element of danger in all the places we deploy to” and adding:
We joined the army, it is part of the job description.
Lieutenant Colonel Brendan Delany, pictured with his family, wife Mairead, Niamh (11), Joe (14) and Siobhan (15) at Cathal Brugha Barracks [Photocall Ireland]
Where will they be operating?
For purposes of the UNDOF mission, the Golan Heights is defined as a stretch of land around 75km long, and varying between 200 metres and 10 kilometres in width. It’s hilly area, dominated in the north by Mount Hermon, which, at 2,814 metres, is the highest mountain in Syria. The area is officially governed and policed by the Syrian authorities, and no other military forces other than UNDOF are permitted in the zone.
There are two base camps for the force in the area, 20 permanently manned positions, eight outposts manned during daylight hours and eleven observation posts. Troops actively patrol the area by day and night.
The UN mission’s headquarters, where the Irish contingent will be based, is located at Camp Faouar.
So, what will they actually be doing?
The Irish contingent will constitute the ‘Force Headquarters Company’. Day to day, they’ll be taking part in patrols aboard armoured vehicles and undertaking what the Defence Forces describe as “reinforcement, reaction, escort and other operations”.
The first few days will be an induction period, as troops familiarise themselves with the base and its equipment. According to Defence Forces press officer Commandant Denis Hanly, the initial days at any new camp are spent getting used to “routine, basic stuff: where you live; what to do in the event of a fire; where the bunkers are — that level of detail”.
“All the time, they’ll also be doing routine maintenance of weapons and equipment, constantly checking and testing so it’s ready when needed.”
The provision of transport and of a quick reaction force to provide back-up for the wider mission will be the Irish troops’ main focus — but in terms of daily activities, there’s no easily-predictable routine. According to Commandant Hanly: “It depends on what the requirement is and what the threat assessment is at any time – travel could be by day or by night”.
Mount Hermon, the highest point in Syria [Wikimedia Commons]
How will they spend their off-duty hours?
In terms of leisure time, there’s what’s called a “welfare room” on site at the camp where soldiers can play snooker and pool or watch TV. For contacting loved ones at home, they also have access to wifi and Skype.
What about food. Hang on, what about drink?
According to Lieutenant Colonel Delaney:
“We’re bringing a number of cooks over with us, and if the standard of food we had down at the Glen of Imaal is anything to go by, then we’ll be putting on a bit of weight over there — the standard was very very good.
“Alcohol is going to be a problem, because obviously if we’re on quick-time to respond and there’s driving involved — alcohol obviously impairs us, so it will be a dry mission.”
The ‘mission readiness’ exercise at the Glen of Imaal, Co Wicklow in August [Photocall Ireland]
Any other interesting facts about the contingent?
The troops are from the 43rd Infantry Group, which is drawn from fifteen Irish counties — although most are from Dublin. The youngest staff member is 21, while the oldest, CQMS Tony Fitzgerald, is 58.
It will be the first tour of duty abroad for 44 of the 115 personnel taking part.
Dubliner Claire Powell — one of four women on the mission, and the female with the most overseas trips — spoke to TheJournal.ie at the Defence Minister’s ‘review of the troops’ before the deployment began:
When will they be home?
The troops are on a ‘six month’ deployment — in practice, though, such deployments can last up to six and a half months. So, mid-April 2014 at the latest.