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Saturday 14 December 2019

Irish troops facing escalating danger in 'peaceful' mission

When our soldiers first went to Syria nobody knew of the increasing threat to their safety

An Irish member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) gestures from an armoured personnel carrier (APC) in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights recently
An Irish member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) gestures from an armoured personnel carrier (APC) in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights recently

Jim Cusack

A contributor to the Irish Military Online forum last week said what many other ex-soldiers are leaving unsaid about the position of Irish troops on the UN's Golan Heights mission: he would rather die fighting "than surrendering and having the chance of being beheaded on al-Jazeera."

The al-Nusra Front who are attempting to overrun the UN mission on the Syrian-Israeli border are beheaders. They decapitated the Franciscan priest Fr Francois Murad in the northern Syrian city of Gassanieh in June last year. The images of his beheading was captured on a mobile phone camera and posted on the web.

The murder of the Syrian priest excited relatively little interest in the West, unlike the more professional images of the two American journalists who met the same fate in the last fortnight.

The same group is responsible, like its former ally and now rival Islamic State, for ethnic cleansing of Syrian Christians, including the last surviving speakers of Armaic, the language the Bible was written in. As well as public beheadings, they have been responsible for crucifixions.

They also claimed responsibility for 57 suicide bombings last year; were caught attempting to smuggle two kilos of the nerve gas Sarin from Turkey; and have murdered what are said to be very large numbers of non-Sunni Muslims, particularly from the Alawite community who share an ethnicity with President Bashar al-Assad.

All "kuffars" (all non-Sunni Muslims, not just Syrian or Irish Christians or the mainly animist Fijians who are being held captive by al-Nusra) are potential beheading victims.

The Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said last week that what our troops were facing in the past week was a "dramatic change in circumstances" in the light of the most recent al-Nusra onslaught on the UN Golan mission. He was not exaggerating.

The dramatic change in circumstances for UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) began almost two years ago in 2012 when fighting broke out between al-Nusra and remaining Syrian state forces in the area bordering Israel. As the state forces were beaten back, al-Nusra increasingly began firing mortars into Israel and directing action against the lightly armed foreign UN observers. A number were injured and two were kidnapped but later freed. Croatia and Japan withdrew their contingents to the UN mission, about 200 troops, in 2012.

Then in June last year as the al-Nusra action escalated, Austria - the longest serving and largest contingent in UNDOF - withdrew its 380 troops, effectively crippling the UN mission.

The decision was taken by the Austrian government following a direct attack on its troops on the morning of June 6 after al-Nusra seized complete control of the Quneitra area around the UN border posts. The decision to withdraw after 39 years of continuous service on the Golan Heights was taken within two hours by the Austrian government.

Prior to 2012, UNDOF was one of the UN's most easy-going missions. There had been virtually no incidents there since the last Arab Israeli war in 1974. One of the few UN casualties in Golan was the senior Irish observer Commandant Tommy Wickham, who was killed during the 1967 war.

The present mission is composed of around 1,200 troops, most of them in support of the official UN observers, usually including 10 Irish officers whose job is to monitor the decades-long ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

One who served on the mission told the Sunday Independent that it was regarded as an "ideal" peaceful posting for officers, many of whom brought out their wives and families who lived only 45 minutes' drive away in Damascus during tours of duty.

Another recalled the highlights of his tour of duty as the local Druze cuisine and skiing at an Israeli resort on Mount Hermon.

The UNDOF Journal for March 2011 records as one of its most interesting events that a family of wolves sought shelter under one of the Austrian troops' observation posts on Mount Hermon during harsh winter weather.

Things could not have changed more by June last year when the Austrians withdrew all their troops and Ireland opted to replace them.

In response to the Austrian withdrawal announcement on June 6, the Israeli government issued a statement calling on the UN to honour its commitment to maintain its observer force on the Golan. The UN issued an appeal to all member states to supply troops to replace the Austrians, Croatian and Japanese. Ireland and Fiji were the only two countries to respond, each sending 130 troops. Forty-four of the Fijians are now held captive by al-Nusra at an unknown location.

The capture of the Fijians - who apparently laid down their weapons and surrendered in compliance with orders from above in the UN - is now a matter of intense international debate over the conduct of the mission.

Following the escape of its besieged troops, with the help of Irish troops and the Israeli Defence Forces, the Philippines government launched an attack on the UN, saying that its troops had stayed alive and free only after disregarding an order by the UN command to lay down their arms and surrender. They pointed to the uncertain fate of the 44 Fijians. who had apparently complied with the UN order and are now hostages.

The Chief of Staff of the Philippines Armed Forces, Lt Gen Gregorio Pio Catapang, said his troops had refused a UN order to surrender their weapons and "wave the white flag". He accused the UN of giving "vague and inconsistent" orders in the face of the al-Nusra attack.

The UN studiously avoided making any comment on Lt Gen Catapang's criticism last week. The Philippines government has, meanwhile, announced it is withdrawing all its troops from Golan from next month.

If, as the Philippines Chief of Staff said, the UN leadership in Golan is dithering, the position of all the troops remaining on the mission is precarious. Despite reassuring though circumspect noises from Mr Coveney, military sources say Irish soldiers are now in the most difficult position since the days of their duties during the full-scale conflict in Lebanon in 1980-1982, when soldiers were killed in the line of duty.

The decision to send the Irish troops was taken by the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter in response to a UN request on July 1, 2013 and was approved by the Cabinet on July 16. An accompanying press release said the role of the Irish contingent "will be to provide a mobile company as Force Headquarters Reserve in UNDOF to cater for reinforcement, escort and other operations throughout UNDOF's area of responsibility". The announcement elicited little critical comment or debate, it being the summer Dail recess.

One of the early notes of caution at the time came from a contributor on Irish Military Online: "I've a bad feeling about this one but we can't take only the cushy jobs". Another described it as "a tough tour ahead".

Others joined in and the site now has hundreds of contributions. The site's convenor issued a request recently to contributors not to make any further comment on the equipment and arms, or lack of them, available to the Irish company after several made comments on the apparent imbalance of weapons on both sides.

Speaking privately, a senior military source said there were reservations over the government decision last summer to commit an Irish contingent but that there would never be any formal objection to the order to go.

The size of the Irish contingent was a matter for concern, with a view that it was seen as more important to be "within budget" than designed to create a serious defence force for the mission.

Some military also saw the decision to send troops to Golan as a "favour" to Israel who are understandably afraid of the Islamists operating freely along the Border.

Ironically, senior sources confirmed last week, that the success of last weekend's operation by the Irish to extricate the beleaguered Filipinos and themselves could not have taken place without the assistance of "intelligence and cover" by the Israeli Army.

Sunday Independent

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