Image via AP/Gil Eliyahu
After weeks of violent confrontations and the kidnapping of 45 peacekeepers by Syrian rebel groups, the UN said Monday that members of their observation force in the Golan Heights will be evacuated to Israeli-controlled territory."Armed groups have made advances in the area of UNDOF [United Nations Disengagement Observer Force] positions, posing a direct threat to the safety and security of the UN peacekeepers along the "bravo" line and in Camp Faouar," where the mission is headquartered, UN spokeswoman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. "All the UN personnel in these positions have thus been relocated to the "alpha" side."
The "bravo" line separates the UN-patrolled disengagement zone from Syria-controlled territory. The "alpha" line delineates the zone from the rest of the 500 square mile Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967. In 1981, Israel officially annexed the territory, though the international community has never recognized the occupation.UNDOF, as the mission is known, has remained in a 50 mile-long sliver of the Golan Heights abutting Syria since 1974, when Israel ceded the land to the UN. Some 1,200 peacekeepers from the Philippines, India, Fiji, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Nepal make up the current peacekeeping force. The UN did not clarify if the decision affected all peacekeepers and personnel in the zone.Despite their neutrality, UNDOF has faced attacks from militant groups in recent weeks, particularly after Islamists captured the vital Quneitra border crossing with Israel on August 27. The next day, fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front captured 45 Fijian peacekeepers and trapped two contingents of Filipino troops at separate UN locations.Filipino authorities said UN commanders told them to hold their fire, but the soldiers refused and were able to escape - one group with the help of Irish peacekeepers and another on their own, but not before reportedly killing three members of Al-Nusrah Front.Earlier Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross also reported fighting in the disengagement zone had worsened.
"Clashes between government forces and the armed opposition have intensified in recent days in Quneitra governorate - in Quneitra city in particular, where access to clean water, food, and health care is limited," the group said in a statement.The Syrian area buttressing the disengagement zone is controlled mostly in the mountainous North by forces of President Bashar al-Assad and reportedly some Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and in the South by various groups in opposition, most notably al-Nusrah Front.Israel Strikes Syrian Positions After Projectile Hits Golan Heights. Read more here.As Syria's civil war began encroaching into the protected area, troop-contributing countries have wavered in their support of the mission. Last year, Austria withdrew its troops, and prior to the events of August 28, the Philippines had also indicated it would pull its soldiers back from the Golan Heights. On two occasions in 2013, militants briefly abducted Filipino peacekeepers.Until 2011, Israel's Golan border was one of its quietest, not witness to the violence seen in Gaza and along the frontier with Lebanon."Generally, they have not been what is preventing Israel and whoever is on the other side of the border from clashing," Robert Blecher, acting director for the Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program, told VICE News. "Those peacekeepers were a relic of an earlier era when an international force could serve as a buffer between two states. With the breakdown of the state structure in Syria, their relevance greatly decreased."
Syria, though it supported Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, did not wish to engage the Israelis directly along their contested border, Dr. Christopher Phillips, lecturer in the international relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary, University of London, told VICE News."Prior to the civil war, the peacekeepers actually did a very effective job, but more because of the political choices of Israel and Syria," he said. "Syria used Lebanon as an outlet to attack Israel - until recently, UNDOF forces had a relatively easy job."The UN's retreat will likely further open the area of separation to fighting between the Assad regime and myriad Islamist groups. It will also bring the fighting to Israel's doorstep.Few doubt Israel have the capacity to prevent substantial incursions into the Golan Heights. The area beyond the "Alpha" line is heavily mined and border crossings secured by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).Hosting beleaguered international peacekeepers may prove a short term PR coup for the Israelis, says Phillips. Over time, the disintegration of effective control on the Syrian side of the disengagement zone could empower the Jewish state to seek to cement its claim as the only viable ruler of the Golan Heights."The risk is that with everything happening, and with the Syrian government being so weak and barbaric, the international community might say 'well this sovereign territory that is legally Syrian might as well be ceded to Israel," said Phillips.
Observers of the Assad regime say that while weakened, government forces could also be ceding land along the Golan Heights in an effort to draw Israel into the conflict. The UN's retreat comes days after US President Barack Obama announced he had authorized airstrikes on Islamic State rebels in Syria, a move that critics see as playing into Assad's hands.Philips says it is unlikely Israel will do more than respond to scattered rocket attacks, as they did on June 22, shelling regime lines, and killing several Syrian soldiers."It's quite clear that for a long time, the Israelis have been looking at the Syrian conflict from a counter-terrorism perspective," said Phillips. "Now with Hezbollah and radical Islamists on their doorstep, they will have other contingencies. I suspect the big trigger will be whether or not you see rockets coming from Syria."The UN reports the IDF has quietly made contact with Islamist groups, meeting them at points along the extremely narrow southern portion of the disengagement zones — where the two lines are but a few hundred meters apart — to exchange wounded and convalescent individuals.Watch VICE News' dispatches from Israel, Rockets and Revenge here.Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @SamuelOakford