Thursday 30 June 2016

Foreign Affairs Minister: 'I don't want Irish troops sucked into Syrian civil war'

Irish soldiers would have been killed or taken hostage by Islamist extremists last week

Jim Cusack and John Drennan

Published 07/09/2014 | 02:30

Members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) ride armoured personnel carriers (APCs) past Israel soldiers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights
Members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) ride armoured personnel carriers (APCs) past Israel soldiers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

The fate of Ireland's mission in the Golan Heights is hanging in the balance this weekend, as Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan bluntly declared he did not want our UN troops sucked into "a Syrian civil war".

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As the viability of the UN mission faces urgent review Mr Flanagan reflected the deep Government unease by saying: "This is a crisis; the situation remains extremely tense and my department is in daily contact with the UN.

"The timescale of the UN review of the ongoing viability of the mission is short-term and urgent. We don't want to see Irish troops or the UN contingent being drawn into a Syrian civil war," he said.

The Sunday Independent has now established from senior sources that Irish soldiers would have been killed or taken hostage by Islamist extremists if it wasn't for the military intervention of the Israeli army during last week's battle to save besieged UN soldiers.

But, despite deepening worries over troop safety, Mr Flanagan ruled out a unilateral Irish withdrawal.

"Support for the UN is a cornerstone of Irish foreign policy and any decision will be made in partnership with them," he said.

A replacement contingent for the 130 Irish troops in the Golan Heights is still preparing to travel before the end of the month.

However, that could change if the government of the Philippines carries out its threat to withdraw its 331 troops from early next month.

The Filipino military is enraged at the UN, and has claimed that it ordered the troops to surrender to the Islamists, endangering their lives.

The Philippines government and military allege that a detachment of 41 Fijian soldiers who did surrender to the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Brigade were only captured after they obeyed a UN order to surrender. Their whereabouts are unknown.

In a statement on Friday, al-Nusra, which has carried out atrocities in Syria, said it was going to try the Fijian soldiers before a Sharia court.

The Filipinos refused to surrender and after a gun battle with the Islamists, and supported by the Irish troops, they managed to break the siege with no loss of life.

Senior sources said that there would "almost certainly" have been UN casualties or deaths if it wasn't for the help given by the Israeli military, which has posts on high ground overlooking the UN observer bases in Quneitra. The Israeli assistance was described as "decisive" in the success of the mission.

The Israelis were able to guide the Irish-led rescue troops and help it avoid concentrations of the more heavily armed al-Nusra force. There are also unconfirmed reports that the Israelis directed fire at the Islamists to stop them from attacking the Filipino and Irish soldiers.

Sunday Independent

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