Dail to approve Syria mission as advance troops leave in days
CONTINGENCY planning for the deployment of Irish troops in Syria is well under way, and a reconnaissance party is expected to be sent there within days.
Irish participation in the mission in the Golan Heights will receive final approval in the Dail this evening.
Under the "triple lock" mechanism, the troops cannot join a mission overseas unless it has been sanctioned by the United Nations, the Government and the Dail.
The 114-strong contingent will join the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) and occupy positions in the Golan Heights, a disputed territory between Israel and Syria that has been hit recently by exchanges of gunfire arising from the escalation of the Syrian conflict.
Shots were fired there yesterday at an Israeli patrol after two unidentified figures infiltrated an unmanned post, while seven shells fired in clashes between Syrian government forces and rebels landed there on Tuesday.
The Defence Forces will send a mechanised infantry group, and the soldiers will join the mobile reserve where their role will include providing protection for the rest of the force, carrying out armed escorts, deploying on patrols and liaising with locals.
They will be equipped with Mowag armoured patrol carriers fitted with 12.7mm heavy machine guns.
"The emphasis will be on mobility and protection rather than firepower," a senior officer said last night.
"It will take us back to the traditional peacekeeping role we played in the early days of the Unifil mission in south Lebanon where the troops will shake hands and liaise with the locals and patrol through the communities", he added.
The Mowags will be transferred to the Golan Heights from south Lebanon where Irish involvement is due to be downsized from two companies to one from November, reducing the number of personnel there from 330 to 180.
The Irish company, being sent at the request of the UN, will not involve members of the elite special forces group, the Ranger Wing.
Senior military officers led by Chief of Staff Lieut General Sean McCann backed the proposed move, but had to face down support for an alternative plan to put troops into Mali in west Africa.
After a close study of the Golan Heights proposal and the support for the move coming from the UN in New York as well as the Israelis and the Syrian factions, Defence Minister Alan Shatter brought his recommendation before the Cabinet on Tuesday.
It is expected that the Irish soldiers will be fully deployed in mid-September, pending an assessment of the report of the reconnaissance party on whether the standard Irish requirements are being met.
Three Irish officers are already deployed with the Undof mission, while 10 are part of the Untso observer mission which is led by Brigadier General Michael Finn.
Tanaiste and Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said yesterday that he had met some weeks ago with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had made a direct request for Irish participation.
He pointed out that Ireland had a long-standing and strong reputation in the provision of peacekeeping forces, particularly in that region, and should contribute to the effort in the Golan Heights.
Mr Gilmore said the Government had been in discussions with the UN to ensure that the maximum level of safety and security was applied to the troops on the mission.
The resolution seeking approval will be tabled before the Dail this evening.