GIVEN JUST A few weeks’ notice, 115 members of the Irish Defence Forces will deploy to Syria next month to join a United Nations mission in the Golan Heights.
The 12 officers and 103 soldiers of various ranks will leave in two groups - the first chalk on 4 September with the remainder following on the 18th of the month. They will participate in the UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) mission with troops from Fiji, India and the Philippines.
They will not have any mandate to get involved in the internal struggle in Syria. The UNDOF mission has actually been in place for almost 40 years in order to keep the peace between Syria and Israel.
The role of the Irish troops will be to provide a mobile company as Force Headquarters Reserve in UNDOF to cater for reinforcement, escort and other operations in the ‘Area of Responsibility’. Those functions are similar to those provided in Liberia and Lebanon.
Ahead of the deployment, TheJournal.ie spoke with Captain James O’Hara, a 28-year-old Monaghan native about to embark on his second trip overseas.
How is the preparation going?
“The government signed off on the mission on 16 July so the preparation started straight away from then. It has been intense training because we have a lot of areas to cover. Our basic training covers a lot of stuff but any time you go overseas, you go back and start rehearsing everything.
“It is like refresher training – from scratch.”
Do you feel ready?
“We’ve had a really intense period of rigorous training and then next week we have a mission readiness exercise where we get tested in the specific scenarios that we could potentially face over there.
“As part of our role there, we will be patrolling the area of separation, the UN area between Israel and Syria. So, we could be out on a patrol and encounter people blocking a road, for example.
How different will it be from your experiences in Lebanon?
“Even though we’re not directly involved with the Syrian civil war crisis, the current situation is what makes it different, I suppose.
“The beauty of this trip is that we have a specific mandate from the 1974 UN Agreement between Syria and Israel – and that is to maintain and supervise the area of separation between the two countries. While the civil war is ongoing, we will have no direct relationship with it.”
Does the current conflict heighten your concern?
“Of course, a little. You are going to aware of it and watching it on the news. It is only natural that there is going to be a little bit of concern, if you want to call it that.
“But it’s a funny thing with soldiers – because you are trained for all these things, you have run through the specific scenarios and been tested in the readiness exercise. This is what you do. You are coached. You’re very well prepared before you go and you take comfort in that.”
Is your family worried about the mission?
“Yeah, family is the big area. Particularly the mothers, fathers and children who see it on the news. For us, going through the training, it is different. We have the advantage of that perspective.
“We know what our job is, what our role is and that we are well prepared and well trained. But it is hard to communicate that back to Mam and Dad at home.
“I think the soldiers actually travelling become more comfortable with the idea of it.”
Are you going to be armed?
“Yes. We bring our own protection and weapons. We, the Irish Army, have very good Force Protection Measures.
“We will have our Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) for force protection. We also each have our own individual protection issued to each soldier, as well as weapons. Both are very, very good. We’re a modern, Western, professional army and we’re well equipped and well trained because of that.”
What is your specific role?
“I am going out as the Military Police Officer. My role out there will be doing some security escorts, patrolling the camp area and liaising with the other troop-contributing countries.”
What is the relationship with the other countries like?
“Because we have such a long tradition with UN peacekeeping, we are very good at it. And the Irish personality is generally very affable, sociable and approachable. We get on very well with the others on the missions – it has never been an issue.”
What will be in your kit?
“It is very important for all of us to keep physically fit while we’re out there so we’ll bring our gear to try and fit in some physical training every day. That could be going for a run or to the gym. Sometimes we do collective circuit training as some of the lads are trained as physical instructors.
“Everyone tries to bring a laptop, if possible, for Skype and keeping in contact with home.
“Then the military stuff as well. We each have our own individual tactical and protective gear, and then boots, uniforms and badges to show our Irish and UN colours. It doesn’t be long adding up and soon the bag is full.”
There was chemical weapons used in Syria this week. Are you trained to deal with chemical attacks?
“It brings us back to the basic training, part of that for all members of the Irish Defence Forces is called Chemical, Biological, Radiation and Nuclear training (CBRN). Everyone has to pass a standard test in it. And now, given where we are going to, we have been conducting rigorous training again. It is very much in our own interest to make sure our drills and skills are what they should be.
“Everyone has their own mask, protective suit, gloves, everything. And trained to put them on quickly in a scenario. All that equipment is going with us.”
How effective is the Irish army in these missions?
“The Lebanon with the Irish army is a long-established thing. I believe we are very good at interacting with local populations. I do think it brings a comfort to the local population knowing that there is an impartial force there. That is there under specific mandate – that does help bring peace and stability.
“The UN have interpreters but we still have to find out if there is much interaction with local population. Even with a language barrier, the Irish people have a way of communicating. I found it was the like that in the Leb. We all have our basic Arabic phrases and know how to be polite and courteous. That is part of training.”
Should Ireland be sending this mission – there was some debate about you even going?
Are you looking forward to going?
“Most soldiers look forward to it. You’re trained and you know why you’re going there and you know what you have to do.
“You are focussed and you kind of want to get out there and start doing it.”
What will you miss most?
“I play Gaelic football myself, so I’m going to miss that. You’d miss the GAA. The lads with family and children are obviously in a different situation. The Internet now makes it different for us though.
“It is a lot different from 30 years ago – there is regular contact. Obviously, work comes first out there but once people are in their downtime, people are free to contact home.
“Hopefully get some family time before we go too.”
Originally published 8.00am