Advance team go to Syria ahead of troops' arrival
Preparation for Golan Heights mission
A MILITARY reconnaissance party is being sent to the Golan Heights in Syria early next week to pave the way for the deployment of a 114-strong peacekeeping contingent.
Defence Forces troops are heading there in September as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
The recce team is being tasked with examining the area where the Irish will be posted and determining the requirements of the troops.
The seven-strong party includes officers from the operations section as well as experts in signals, engineering, transport and logistics.
They are expected to remain on the Golan for a week and will then prepare a report for the chief of staff of the Defence Forces, who will advise Defence Minister Alan Shatter on what is required.
The UN requested the participation of the Irish soldiers on the Golan following a decision by the Austrian government to withdraw its troops after a spill-over from the Syrian conflict into the region.
They are believed to have been chosen because of their known track record in the Middle East where they are acceptable to all sides and regarded as "acting in good faith", according to a senior security official.
The Irish will act as the 'force mobile reserve' and will be called in as reinforcements as well as carrying out escorts and taking part in other operations.
They have already filled a similar role in Lebanon and in Liberia.
The mandate for the UNDOF mission was recently renewed by the UN security council for a further six months.
The deployment is seen as a big boost to the Defence Forces on overseas missions as the numbers involved in Lebanon are being reduced from November when Finnish troops take over the lead role in their joint battalion there.
UNDOF is backed up by more than 80 military observers from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation's (UNTSO) group in the Golan, and this involves 10 Irish officers as well as being led by the recently appointed Major General Michael Finn.
A green paper on defence, published earlier this month by Mr Shatter, echoed the words of US President Barack Obama on his visit here last year, that Ireland has "punched above its weight" in overseas missions and has made a valuable, disproportionate contribution to the UN, despite its limited capacity.