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Opinion: The lives of our peacekeeping troops are being recklessly risked at the Syrian border

The situation at the border is far too volatile for the UN mission’s remit – it seems the only reason to keep it there is for political posturing.

Aaron McKenna

THE CAPTURE BY Syrian rebels of 43 UN peacekeepers in the disputed Golan Heights, and the paralysing of a further 81 troops with demands for their surrender, highlights the risks faced by our troops abroad. Ireland, with 130 troops as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone (UNDOF) force in Golan, has a long history of contributing to these missions. These deployments often go relatively unnoticed, as do the threats faced by members of the Defence Forces every day on them.

The Syrian border deployment was stepped up in response to the civil war in that country. A UN force of one composition or another has been present in the region since 1974, and is the smaller brother of the UN “Interim” Force in Lebanon, which has been in operation since 1978. Both missions have contributed to the stability of the region, with UN troops standing between opposing factions to de-escalate potentially violent situations.

The UN missions are not always successful, and the likes of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Israeli Defence Forces have regularly traded fire over the years. Nevertheless, the presence of international troops has managed to save lives and prevent more conflict. It is a worthwhile endeavour.

The mission in Syria at the moment, however, highlights many of the shortcomings of these UN peacekeeping missions. For the vast majority of its history the UN force has sat between relatively stable actors. Syria and Israel will trade blows every now and again, and in Lebanon we have seen major escalations such as in the 2006 war, but for the most part the regions follow a predictable pattern of contained violence. The peacekeepers can affect this and try to offset it.

The UN force isn’t designed to deal with a conflict like this

Syria is racked by civil war and has become a far more dynamic environment than the static UN force has been designed to deal with. Rebel groups have evolved since the war started, and there is now a range – from freedom fighters for democracy through to the horrific Islamic State – operating in the country. It says a lot about the spectrum of violence being perpetrated in Syria that there was almost a sigh of relief when it was al-Qaeda affiliated rebels rather than IS types who had engaged the UN troops.

The Syrian military did not practise mass kidnappings of UN troops on a regular basis. In Lebanon, the kidnapping of troops was a relatively rare occurrence. This is now the second kidnapping against UN troops in Golan in two years, and on a mass scale.

When confronted with rebels, the UN force has not been able to respond with effective force. That 120 UN troops could be surrounded, with 40 captured and the remainder held in place by rebels, without any sort of a fight is telling. The UN rules of engagement that peacekeepers operate to are – for good and, sometimes, bad reasons – quite restrictive. UN troops can respond with deadly force, but not in every instance.

Simply put, there is no question that rebels would be able to capture an entire platoon of Israeli soldiers without a severely trying firefight. This limits rebels to small snatch-and-grab missions, such as we’ve seen in Gaza and had experience of ourselves from the UN mission in Lebanon.

The UNDOF troops captured last year were returned safely. Hopefully, the troops captured this time will also come home without a hair being harmed on their heads. But the fact of the matter is that we see video nasties coming out of Syria every week, from single beheadings to mass shootings. There is no guarantee whatsoever that UN troops captured by rebels would simply be bartered back.

What is the purpose of the threat to the lives of our troops?

The UN mission on the Golan Heights is there to try and prevent war, or even low level conflict, with Israel and Syria. At this point, with the Syrian civil war in full swing, there is nothing the UN forces can realistically do to becalm the situation. When Syrian forces wounded Israeli troops, through errant fire or deliberately we do not know, the Israelis responded by shelling government bases as a gentle reminder of their existence.

The chances of the border situation between Syrian forces, rebel or government or both, and the Israelis getting out of hand are relatively high; UN force or no UN force. Meanwhile, the blue hatted troops sent over to sit between the two countries are coming under regular fire and direct hostile action. An Irish patrol in the area was hit with small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire only recently.

One has to wonder what the purpose of the threat to the lives of our troops is in this mission at this time? What are they accomplishing by standing in the middle of this three-way cluster that is the Syrian-Israeli border, without even it seems the proper backup to defend themselves?

UN missions play an important role, and they are generally riskier than we give them credit for. In this case however, the Syrian border does not have much peace left to keep. The UN forces will not end the Syrian civil war in the region, and this is the lit match that is being thrown at the powder keg. Soldiers sign on to do a dangerous job, but there is no point in asking them to go into danger for no practicable purpose.

Political posturing

The UN has deployed peace enforcement missions, which are substantially different to more static peacekeeping, and Irish troops have participated in these. If Syria were right for this type of mission, which it is not, and if international consensus was there for such a mission, which there is not; it might be a worthwhile endeavour to look at taking part in.

As is, our troops are sitting in the middle of factions that are engaged in a fight to the death. There is nothing the UN mission can do to effectively stop this. All the UN troops can do is expose themselves to danger, without the backup of rules of engagement or support to fight off the likes of rebels who come looking for you to march into captivity and then to who knows where.

If the UN mission cannot support stability, it seems the only reason to keep it there is for political posturing. It would look bad to withdraw UN troops, even if they cannot effectively influence the situation. That’s not a good enough reason to keep 130 of our people in the shooting range.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

No Irish troops among dozens of peacekeepers captured in the Golan Heights

Irish peacekeeping troops experiencing ‘some harassment’ in Syria

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