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Druze men carry Syrian flags and a poster of Bashar al Assad in the occupied Israeli controlled portion of the Golan Heights. Alamy Stock Photo
departing the golan

As Irish soldiers depart, peace looks as remote as ever in the violence-ravaged Golan

The Journal recently travelled to Syria to visit Irish troops peacekeeping on the contested Golan.

STANDING INSIDE CAMP Faouar in the company of Irish troops the sound of ordnance hitting targets can be heard in the distance. 

The soldiers don’t flinch – they are used to it – a regular feature in this corner of the contested Middle East.

The Irish have been here since 2013 keeping the peace while acting as an armoured and heavily-armed emergency Quick Reaction Force for fellow peacekeepers across the contested and war ravaged Golan.

The Golan is a region straddling the Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian borders that has seen a recent history of war and violence, mass loss of life and at times de facto ethnic cleansing.

The Hamas 7 October attack on Israel and the Israeli Defence Forces military response inside Gaza is causing an uptick in action in the area. 

But the most recent outbreaks of violence are nothing new – this ground has been fought over for millenia. The only difference is that the weaponry is more accurate and deadly – produced on a scale and lethality unseen in history. 

The Journal visited the region last week to report on the operations of Ireland’s troops as they prepare for the end of their mission next month.

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There have been targeted bombings, shellings and even an extrajudicial drone strike assassination of three Hezbollah militants in recent months. Hezbollah fighters knocked down a sophisticated high-altitude Israeli drone in nearby Lebanon’s Becca Valley while we were visiting the Golan – an act that elicited an immediate and devastating response by Israel.

The Becca is a picturesque farming area but it is peppered with a number of refugee camps – visible as shanty towns with United Nations liveried tarpaulins.

Golan/Golan Heights  

The Golan, or as Israelis call it, the Golan Heights, is rocky mountainous terrain at high altitude – even the choice of name of the place causes problems. The Irish and their international partners cover a ribbon of ground 75kms in length from biblically famous and imposing snow capped Mount Hermon in the north to the Jordan and Israeli borders in the south. 

Ireland has participated in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force since 2013 but the mission has been in place since 1973 – it was placed there to separate the warring sides in the wake of the Yom Kippur War.

The Israelis continue to contest the rights of Syrians to the land and they are using their well trodden tactic of settlements to establish their claim to the ground. It is extremely regular that the peacekeepers record incidents of violence in the area – the peace established by the UN is fragile at best.   

israel-golan-heights-by-israel-occupied-1981-after-six-day-war-and-jom-kippur-war-between-syria-and-israel-agricultural-farms-and-windfarm-behind-snow-covered-mountain-mount-mt-hermon An image from the Israeli side of Mount Hermon and the Wind Farm on the contested Golan. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

To get to Camp Faouar we must travel across the Lebanese border and towards the Syrian capital of Damascus. From the minute the border guard stamps our passports we begin to see the influence of the regime of Bashir al Assad. 

Posters dot the landscape, every few hundred metres – the Syrian dictator in various poses and dress. 

The terrain is hilly and arid – not unlike the landscape in southern Spain.

But this is not a holiday destination – at regular intervals scratches in the ground from tank emplacements are visible in fields – rocky defensive positions and occasionally pillboxes and bunkers are dug into hillsides. Lightly armed checkpoints of scraggily dressed military personnel precariously hold Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The ragtag bands of men occasionally wave a greeting to the passing Irish troops but it is clear they are not the elite soldiers of the Assad regime.

On the peaks of Mount Hermon Israeli bases are visible – the instillations are part of the Jewish State’s Iron Dome air defence system.

On the streets of villages, towns and on the outskirts of Damascus people sit on the dusty curbs with large plastic containers of fuel. This is smuggled or siphoned-off diesel or petrol – they sell the illicit load to make ends meet – it is a clear sign that poverty is endemic in this heavily-sanctioned country. 

druze-men-sit-in-front-of-a-poster-of-syrian-president-bashar-assad-during-a-rally-calling-for-the-return-to-syria-of-the-golan-heights-captured-by-israel-in-1967-in-majdal-shams-in-the-israeli-cont Druze men sit in front of a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad during a rally calling for the return to Syria of The Golan. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The sense of tension is heightened near the Irish camp as a base of Russian soldiers stands robustly along a busy roadside. The United Nations is just one military faction here – Assad called in Vladimir Putin to assist in the midst of the civil war.

The Russians patrol also and have assisted in quelling dissent from those opposed to the Assad regime in the civil war but also have assisted in a fight against the terror group ISIS. That helped them, temporarily at least, to curry favour with western countries but in time that relationship reverted back. 

There are a number of reports that the US bombed Russian mercenaries in Syria – the infamous Wagner Group, which has been operating in the country. The most notable of which was in 2018 during the Battle of Khasham. 

Sources have said that Russians patrol aggressively – attempting to get a reaction from the UN Peacekeepers. We also heard reports that they have been spotted driving dangerously. A Russian attack helicopter buzzed Camp Faouar in recent weeks also.

Sources said it is all an attempt to provoke the peacekeepers into a response that would be used by the Russians to undermine the UN mission. 

“The mere presence of United Nations peacekeepers in this area disturbs them doing what they want to do – they would prefer that no one has eyes on them and that is why they are behaving as they are,” a source said.  

Quneitra

The reality is, and it is clear travelling the roads there, that the Syrian side of the Golan has many interested parties but none of them are solving the instability problem.

The UN is a buffer but while the Irish and their partners are doing good work responding to incidents, the fighting and bombing has not stopped – whether that comes from Israel or militants or other proxy actors.

IMG_7420 The last group of Irish soldiers deployed to UNDOF participate in a UN medal parade. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

It is nigh on impossible to split the reasons for it. 

On one of the days we are brought in Irish military UN armoured vehicles to Quneitra – a frontier town. 

It is located right on the border with Israel. En route there, passing through the Syrian countryside, it becomes very apparent the disparity in wealth. 

Syrians in the Golan are clearly living hand to mouth – subsistence herders with flocks of sheep or workers bent over toiling in an occasional rocky field dot the landscape.  The black marketeers dealing in oil appear in the towns. There is no industry present.

But the closer we get to the Israeli border the disparity becomes more obvious. The Israeli side is cultivated with manicured farming on an industrial scale, massive wind turbines turn gracefully and the riches are visible in buildings on the land. Massive and robust military installations are also visible. 

As we look towards Israel’s riches we reach the town of Quneitra, or what is left of it. It is a razed ghost town of rubble and destruction – an Israeli force destroyed it retreating back across the frontier. 

The town was the location of the Syrian headquarters during the Six Day War in the late 1960s. It was captured by Israel during that war and subsequently scene to fighting and shelling during the Yom Kippur war in the 70s. While reports from the time state it was battle scarred it would ultimately be destroyed by Israeli settlers in an act to deprive the re-occupying Syrian in the early 1970s.   

Dismounted at the Alpha Charlie Gate border crossing, body armour on, we discover we are the first journalists to reach the location in 20 years – the ominous sound of an Israeli jet fighter is audible above us.

The Syrians have never rebuilt the demolished town – leaving it as a historic record of the destruction.

The Irish will leave the Golan in April – a move forced on the Defence Forces because of a staffing crisis at home. A handful of Irish troops will work as unarmed observers with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) but Ireland’s heavier footprint will be lost. Kazakhstani troops will take the place of Oglaigh na hÉireann.

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