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UN inaction on Syria threatens to make it an impossible mission for Irish troops

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An Irish member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) gestures from an armoured personnel carrier (APC) in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights before crossing into Syria August 31, 2014.

An Irish member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) gestures from an armoured personnel carrier (APC) in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights before crossing into Syria August 31, 2014.

REUTERS

An Irish member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) gestures from an armoured personnel carrier (APC) in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights before crossing into Syria August 31, 2014.

In a volatile world, peace-keeping can be a high-risk business. The daring rescue by Irish troops of their Filipino colleagues on the Golan Heights underpins this point. It also focuses Irish attention on an often fraught region, where our soldiers run the risk of serious attack, even though they are operating under a UN mandate.

The "Blue Flag" and the moral authority of the international community are no guarantee of safety to Irish United Nations peace keepers, especially given the ever changing political landscape of the area. Right now, as the United Nations and our own government reviews the situation on the ground, some fundamental questions arise. These primarily relate to issues of troop safety, which Defence Minister Simon Coveney has rightly highlighted as his main priority, and to issues surrounding the overall future of the mission.

The 130 members of the Defence Forces 44th Infantry Group provide the military hard-edge and backbone to the 1,200 strong five-nation United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), whose mandate is to ensure that an area which could easily become a conflict zone remains demilitarised. The mission's role is primarily peace-keeping. However, a stronger and more robust peace enforcement role would considerably strengthen the force's mandate.

The highly efficient rescue operation conducted by our troops last Saturday has its origin in years of UN troop operations, stretching back to bloody days in the Belgian Congo and honed in various "hot spots" across the globe. It might surprise some civilian readers to learn that our Defence Forces have a lot of experience in operating in a hostile environment. Our troops' extensive peace enforcement engagement, most recently in Chad, will have played a significant role in the tactics of the commanders in approaching the weekend's rescue. This operation was a success because it was expertly planned and was rooted in ensuring correct risk analysis, in deploying only appropriate military assets and using the minimum force.

The successful operation gives us all cause to be proud of our military's expertise, however, this should not blind us to the fact that serious questions exist regarding the mission's future role and the appropriateness of its mandate. The mission's mandate, as currently constructed, "to ensure the demilitarisation of the area" cannot be fulfilled. Recent internal militant activity in Syria and, perhaps, even across the region as a whole, has, in fact, rendered its task impossible.

We are now some two years into the internal Syrian strife, yet the UN has failed to respond adequately to events on the ground. It has taken the events of recent days, allied with pressure from our Government to prompt the UN into a re-evaluation mode.

The options are now limited. Maintaining the status quo is unlikely to be acceptable to nations contributing troops, least of all Ireland. Mr Coveney has more or less said as much. There is hardly much point in deploying well-trained troops and expensive equipment half way across the world and confining them to barracks, while the innocent local population are left to their own devices and at the mercy of unelected war lords. For the same reasons, withdrawal of the whole force by the United Nations would seem unlikely as it would be viewed as the political equivalent of a solider "deserting his post".

This leaves open the possibility (and/or risk) of some elements of the force been withdrawn by a parent nations. Such an option would be equally undesirable, particularly in the case of the Irish troops, whose military hardware, mission experience and hard-nose, no-nonsense approach to achieving its objectives is a vital cog in maintaining any United Nations presence on the Golan.

While the Government will be aware of this and, indeed, the negative impact on our international reputation of any such decision to withdraw, they are also duty-bound to consider the safety of our soldiers. This should suggest the possibility of re-structuring the mission with a possible re-definition of its mandate by the United Nations.

Unfortunately, however, unlike the speed of operation deployed by members of the 44th Infantry Group at the weekend, the United Nations moves at a much slower pace, particularly at HQ level.

In the first instance, we need to recognise that the evaluation which is currently underway won't be completed overnight and, even if it could be, experience has shown that getting international agreement to alter the mission will be equally tedious.

Our troops currently deployed on the Golan are due for rotation in the next few weeks.

Hopefully, the United Nations uses this timeline as a catalyst to focus attention on the area and arrive at a solution that works for the population of the region, from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel and also for nations contributing its sons and daughters to stand on that thin blue line.

Inaction by the world community will only inevitably lead to continued suffering and senseless bloodshed.

Eoin O Neachtain is former Government Press Secretary and former Irish Army officer who served with the United Nations.

Irish Independent