Tuesday 4 August 2015

Syrian border 'too risky' for 130 Irish peacekeepers

Defence Minister Simon Coveney is prepared to pull Irish troops out of Golan Heights

Published 02/09/2014 | 02:30

Members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) ride armoured personnel carriers  in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Photo: Reuters
Members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) ride armoured personnel carriers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Photo: Reuters

Defence Minister Simon Coveney is prepared to pull Irish troops out of Golan Heights unless the United Nations acts to make their mission safer.

The Government has told the UN that it does not want to withdraw its peacekeepers from the Syrian border - but has warned that it may not replace the current force in a month's time.

Mr Coveney said the 130 Irish soldiers are central to the peacekeeping effort, as they offer armed protection to the other nations' forces, whose role is mainly observation.

He said the vicious attacks by Syrian rebels fighting a civil war against their government had fundamentally changed the 40-year-old mandate for the UN peacekeepers in the region.

This had always been to maintain an Israeli-Syrian truce. But recent events in the civil war which has raged since 2011 have made things far more risky for Irish and other UN peacekeepers.

"The United Nations must now either change the mandate for its peacekeepers and/or change the nature of the UN mission in the region. The Syrian civil war has fundamentally changed things and we cannot expose our Irish peacekeepers to an unacceptable level of risk," Mr Coveney told the Irish Independent.

The minister said the Irish troops and others were originally tasked as observers in a disputed but demilitarised border zone which has operated since a truce in 1974. Now the reality of the Golan Heights is that it is a war zone.

Mr Coveney said if the UN wants Ireland to continue operating in the Golan Heights there must be a full review. This would have to yield assurances on how the mission can adapt or how the mandate can change to fit those new realities. He added that Fijian peacekeepers who were captured were still being held and the UN is managing negotiations to secure their safe release.

Irish troops are on standby in their headquarters in case they are needed to bring these troops back on the basis of an agreement.

One longer-term option which might help matters would be moving the UN posts closer to the Israeli border, a move which might deter attacks by Syrian rebels.

Much of the terrain currently covered by the UN force is currently in what might be considered Syrian territory.

There are a total of six nations involved in the 1,200-strong force. But two of these, India and Netherlands, are confined to a small number of senior officers.

The other nations, Fiji, Philippines and Nepal, provide the bulk of troops, and are understood to be of a similar view to the Irish Government.

Irish Independent

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