Wednesday 17 January 2018

'We are being dragged into a nasty civil war'

Minister says Golan Heights mission must be reviewed by UN

U.N. peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, also known as UNDOF, observe Syria's Quneitra province at an observation point on Mt. Bental in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights
Smoke rises following an explosion on the Syrian side near the Quneitra border crossing Credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

John Drennan and Jim Cusack

Defence Minister Simon Coveney warned he may be forced to pull out Irish UN peacekeeping troops under fire from Islamic militants in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Mr Coveney was speaking to the Sunday Independent last night after Irish soldiers returned fire when they came under attack from Syrian rebels.

The Irish UN force is vital to the success of the Golan Heights mission, but Mr Coveney said our peacekeepers could not be sucked into a bitter civil war.

"We are in danger of being dragged into a very nasty, very violent, very bitter civil war in Syria," the minister told the Sunday Independent.

"There will be a lot of pressure to maintain the mission because it has worked, but we cannot pretend that the circumstances have not changed."

The minister said the Government was "committed" to the mission, which has policed the border between Israel and Syria since 1974.

"This has been a relatively civilised border. We are doing a good job in a very volatile environment."

But he warned: "Once the current stand-off has been resolved, hopefully without loss of life and gunfire, there needs to be a fundamental review of the UN mission.

"The capacity for the mission to function has been compromised by the civil war. The security risk has changed."

Mr Coveney said there would have to be a review of the UN mission in the Golan Heights before any more Irish troops would be deployed to the region.

"What I will not do is send Irish soldiers out to get caught up in a bitter civil war without getting significant reassurances from Israel, the UN and Syria," he added.

"I need to be satisfied Irish soldiers can operate to a UN mandate without being dragged into a civil war," he added.

However, those Irish troops on the ground in the Golan Heights are already in the firing line of the brutal civil war raging across Syria.

They were dramatically called into action yesterday as clashes erupted between al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels and UN peacekeepers after militants surrounded their encampment.

Other UN peacekeepers were able to flee from a different encampment that was also surrounded by rebels of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.

The clashes came after Syrian rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, overran the Quneitra crossing - located on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan Heights - on Wednesday, seizing 44 Fijian peacekeepers. The Nusra Front also surrounded the nearby Rwihana and Breiqa encampments, where other UN peacekeepers were holed up. The gunbattle began early yesterday at the Rwihana base some 1.5 miles (2.3km) from Quneitra, where 40 Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by Nusra fighters who were ordering them to surrender.

The 35 Filipino UN peacekeepers at the Breiqa encampment were extracted with the assistance of the Irish peacekeepers who rushed to their aid.

The UN said in a statement that it had received assurances from credible sources that the Fijian peacekeepers "are safe and in good health".

The UN mission, known as UNDOF, has a total of 1,223 troops from Ireland and five other countries: Fiji, India, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

The 130-strong Irish contingent is the defence element of the UN mission, known as the Force Mobile Reserve (FMR), and is tasked with protecting more lightly armed observers.

Despite the dangers facing Irish soldiers, Mr Coveney said it would cause "huge problems" if they withdrew from the region now.

He said: "If we were to pull out it would cause huge problems. The Irish contingent consists of heavily armed mobile units that are taken very seriously in terms of firepower and training.

"The Irish unit constitutes the real backbone of the mission. These are very highly skilled and highly trained soldiers and they are particularly trained for this environment. Ours is the unit that is immediately called upon to sort out flash-points."

The minister also moved to allay concerns that Irish troops might have to face the fundamentalist ISIS militants.

"What I am being told is that there is no ISIS connection."

But he admitted: "There are so many different factions though it is no longer clear who you are talking to, who you are defending or if even they know."

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan also expressed his concerns that "the situation in this area is very volatile at present". He said his department is "closely monitoring the situation".

Meanwhile, a Syrian activist yesterday released a video showing extremists from the Islamic State group opening fire and killing dozens of men stripped down to their underwear.

The men in the video were likely to be those who were captured after the extremists overran a Syrian airfield last Sunday. The Syrian soldiers were stuck behind front lines after the north-eastern Tabqa air base fell to the Islamic State group.

The video, released by an activist who uses the name Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, corresponded with the Associated Press reporting of the event. It matched a series of other videos released since Wednesday. One video showed the men being held in a concrete-floor room; another showed the men forced to march through a barren landscape in their underwear, herded like sheep. Another showed their seemingly lifeless bodies in piles on the ground.

Sunday Independent

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