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Concern for Irish troops in Syria as Russia and US plan safe zone

There are concerns that this new safe zone could be safeguarded by Russian and US troops.

Fighting in recent weeks came so close to the UNDOF camp that Irish troops were forced to take cover inside.
Fighting in recent weeks came so close to the UNDOF camp that Irish troops were forced to take cover inside.
Image: Irish Defence Forces via Flickr

CONCERN HAS BEEN expressed about Irish troops based in Syria after recent fighting close to their camp and developments that have seen the United States and Russia negotiating the terms of a safe zone in the area.

In the first week of this month, clashes between rebel groups and government forces in Syria came so close to the Irish camp that troops had to take cover as gun fire landed inside the base.

A ceasefire in southern Syria was brokered by the US, Russia and Jordan on Friday and it has been reported that they reached an agreement on the creation of a safe zone, which would allow refugees who fled Jordan to return. It would also facilitate the access of humanitarian aid.

However, it is possible armed Syrian rebels will police this new safe zone, with the backing of American and Russian troops, which would significantly change the dynamics of the situation and could lead to further tensions.

The mandate of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is to maintain the ceasefire between the Israeli and Syrian forces, which means keeping weapons out of the Golan Heights. The terms of this new safe zone could impact on this mission.

Now Irish soldiers in Syria and a number of politicians at home are asking what the government here is doing to involve itself in ongoing negotiations that will ultimately impact on members of its Defence Forces and the job they have been sent there to do.

15842818368_60135c20ff_k There are concerns about the involvement of Russian and US forces. Source: Irish Defence Forces via Flickr

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh said the UNDOF mandate now urgently needs to be reviewed.

“When the circumstances on the ground change in such a dramatic fashion and the Russians are involved, you have to look again at whether it’s appropriate for us to be there in the first place. We need to look at whether we need to consider withdrawing, do we need extra supports there?” he said.

The UNDOF mission

Currently there are 136 Irish personnel committed to this mission. The most recent UN Security Council report on UNDOF noted that the spillover of the Syrian civil war into the mission’s area of operation had pushed peacekeepers from the Bravo [Syrian] side into the Alpha [Israeli] side. It is unlikely there will be a full return to the Syrian side.

The mission is subject to the disengagement agreement and any changes require consent by both Israel and Syria. Some of the options considered in the report include urging these two governments to allow the use of new technologies for observation and enhanced equipment for the troops’ protection capabilities.

Changes such as these are unlikely to receive support, at least from the Israeli side as its government has been critical of UN peacekeeping missions. Just recently Israel’s deputy chief of staff, Major General Aviv Kochavi, contradicted the Irish commander of the UN force in southern Lebanon, Major General Michael Beary, when they were giving a tour of the border to US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

The Times of Israel reports Beary told Haley the situation was stable, but was interrupted by Kochavi, who said the mission was not doing its job properly. TheJournal.ie asked the Department of Foreign Affairs whether Minister Simon Coveney raised this interaction in his recent controversial meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahi – the department did not respond.

Source: Irish Defence Forces via Flickr

Ó Snodaigh pointed out that the restrictions on the mission in Syria have made the job of peacekeeping in the area practically impossible at times.

“Irish troops operating there have been welcomed throughout the world for the way they operate, not taking sides and being quite good at diffusing situations. In the Golan Heights, in the main, they have been welcomed. But there have been situations where they have had to keep their heads down,” he said.

The mandate isn’t to interfere, but the whole place is in flux – can they fulfil their mandate now? There is no point in being there if they are just keeping their heads down.

‘Unprecedented’

Speaking in the Dáil this week, Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers also raised recent tensions in the Golan Heights, describing the fighting close to the Irish camp as “unprecedented”.

“The fighting was so close to the Irish camp and so intense that many Irish military personnel are concerned at what they perceive as a lack of response from the government,” she said.

I am concerned that there has been no publicity about this and no official response. I am concerned that there has not been more briefing on it and that it was not acknowledged, given the scale of the offensive action that took place, about which a number of troops are concerned.

“Why has the Minister not briefed the Dáil about this before now and why did he wait to be prompted? What measures are the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs taking, in light of what we have learned?”

In response to a query from TheJournal.ie, Minister of State at the Department of Defence Paul Kehoe said the government’s ability to protect the health and safety of our personnel is his “paramount concern” when considering any mission.

“It is the policy and practice to ensure that Defence Forces personnel serving overseas are appropriately trained and equipped with the most modern and effective equipment to carry out their mission,” he said.

In this regard, they complete comprehensive, mission focused training in advance of any deployment to ensure that they are suitably prepared for the challenges that they face. This also includes providing the required force protection assets specific to the mission.
Ongoing threat assessments are carried out in mission areas and both personal equipment and force assets are continually reviewed, to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are appropriately equipped to fulfil their roles.

The minister noted, however, that “no mission is without danger” and said he is assured by the Chief of Staff that appropriate security measures are in place for Irish personnel serving with UNDOF.

Kehoe did not address questions about the Irish government’s level of interaction with the US, Russia and Jordan in relation to the safe zone. His department did note that the impact on the UNDOF mission of “the conflicts between state and non-state actors in Syria is being closely monitored”.

Read: Netanyahu posts criticism of ‘Ireland’s traditional stance’ on Facebook after Coveney meeting>

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