Peacekeepers will spend Christmas near factions linked to extremists
Published 24/12/2015 | 02:30
Brave Irish peacekeeping troops serving in the Golan Heights will spend Christmas just kilometres from dangerous warring factions linked to Isil and al-Qa'ida.
The 131 troops have grown accustomed to the clashes between anti-government forces, which usually break out as dusk descends on the area they patrol, separating Syria from Israel.
The two most dangerous factions operating in this war-torn area of south western Syria are the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al-Qa'ida, and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, said to be linked to Isil.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade came to international attention when its members abducted 21 Filipino United Nations soldiers in March 2013.
The Irish peacekeepers were subsequently involved in ending a siege which led to the rescue of the Filipino soldiers and involved firing three warning shots from a 12.7mm heavy machine gun, fitted to a Mowag armoured vehicle.
The peacekeepers hear the regular echoes of mortar shelling and gunfire as rival factions of the anti-government forces exchange their own version of season's greetings. The in-fighting has at times brought the frontline to within several kilometres of the mission area, resulting in two Nepalese peacekeepers being injured by flying shrapnel last May, while a large car bomb exploded on November 30.
Late last year, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade became involved in a series of clashes with the al-Nusra Front but tensions intensified last month when the local brigade head, Muhammad "Abu Ali" al-Baridi, nicknamed al-Khal (The Uncle) and five key associates were killed in a bomb blast in Jamla village where they were headquartered.
Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the attack. This has resulted in both sides stepping up their attacks.
The Irish do not get involved, as it is not part of their brief to monitor the fallout from the Syrian civil war. But it increases the potential dangers for the troops as they go out on patrol.
However, the personnel of the 50th Infantry group have the best armoured protection in the Undof (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) mission when they go out on patrol from their headquarters at Camp Zouiani.
Under the command of Lieut Col Darragh McKevitt, a former Kildare inter-county footballer, the troops form the mission's force reserve company as they maintain the ceasefire between Syria and Israel and supervise the disengagement of the Syrian and Israeli forces. The Irish also supply the force's Quick Reaction Force, a 30-strong platoon of troops, who must be ready at 15 minutes' notice to respond to an incident.
Their average response time is down to nine minutes.
The platoon is on stand-by on a round-the-clock basis for a week and then replaced by another Irish platoon.
The contingent also contains a specialist search team of engineers, who can be deployed to clear an area and destroy mines and other matériel left over from previous incidents.
It's a complex scenario in which they must operate, with some of the other anti-government factions regularly switching allegiances from one week to the next.
It has become even more complicated in the past week with the death of a Hezbollah commander, Samir Kuntar, who was hit in an Israeli strike in Damascus.
Kuntar was reportedly targeted for his alleged role in mobilising members of the Syrian Druze community on the Golan to carry out terror attacks against Israel and open up a new front in their war.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has since threatened retaliation.
In the midst of these sensitive political and military developments, the Irish adhere to their role in the separation strip of land, which is 60 kilometres south of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Their equipment and their decades of experience trying to maintain peace in world trouble spots are the greatest weapons they possess as they set about their daily tasks.