With debates over the state of Russian-American relations and worry over the spillover from the Syrian civil war, which last week led to Israel downing a Syrian fighter jet after it penetrated its airspace, and the return of the Syrian regime to the Golan Heights border after a six-week long campaign, it’s easy to miss the importance of one thing that Netanyahu, Trump, Putin and Assad seemingly agree on – the full implementation of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement.
The arrangement’s official name, “Agreement on disengagement between Israeli and Syrian Forces”, was reached following the 1973 October / Yom Kippur war. That agreement established 44 permanently manned positions and 11 observation posts in a demilitarised zone 80km long and anywhere from one to ten kilometres wide to be manned by members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF – personnel from Austria, Peru, Canada and Poland). Today, about 1000 troops are provided by Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, the Netherlands and the Philippines. For most of its 44-year-mandate, it has mediated and resolved any issues concerning minor violations of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement without incident.
Since August 2014, however, the peacekeeping mission, and more broadly the set of understandings that underpin the system, has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. After a series of kidnappings of soldiers by ISIS and other terrorist groups in 2013 and 2014, UNDOF’s activity was paralysed and the staff were evacuated to Israel. In the last two weeks, however, the Golan and its peacekeeping force has re-emerged in the centre of international diplomacy.
As mentioned, it’s perhaps the only thing that the US, Russia, Israel and the Syrian regime agree on.
What drives this agreement is mutual interest. Israel and America want to prevent any Iranian military forces encroaching near the de-militarised zone; Assad believes the 1974 agreement represents a pillar of the restoration of Syrian sovereign control over its borders; and Russia feels it helps to stabilise its long-time Middle Eastern ally and may alleviate potential Israeli military action that would weaken their ally Assad.
However, UNDOF is soon to discover that the environment along its border with Syria will not be the same as it was before the start of the Syrian civil war. In a recent article, “You cannot step into the same river twice“, Assaf Orion notes several challenges UNDOF will face primarily relating to communications, force security, the humanitarian situation and the competing forces in the new security environment.
One particularly urgent issue is “the humanitarian challenge in UNDOF’s area of operation, where basic infrastructure has been destroyed” and if left untouched can destabilise UNDOF’s operating environment and security conditions.” Orion recommends UNDOF replicating UNIFIL’s (the UN force in Southern Lebanon) modus operandi, although warns that this will require more money, civil engineering capabilities, medical care, and civilian assistance staff.
The most concerning for Israel (and a challenge for UNDOF) relates to the change in the Syrian army from a “monochrome” army of the past to a “multi-coloured” army consisting of military forces, local and foreign militias, and armed civilians. Despite Israel and Russia reportedly agreeing that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces would vacate areas in southwestern Syria near the Israeli border, they have reportedly returned as integrated units within the Syrian army structure.
Examples of this abound. The Quneitra Hawks, comprising 200 fighters and affiliated with Hezbollah before it de-mobilised in Khan Arnabeh was immediately regrouped and joined the 7th Division of the Syrian Army; a group of Hezbollah fighters were deployed to the town of Khan Arnebeh, a town situated just outside the UN Disengagement Observer Force Zone in Quneitra Governorate, as part of the 5th Division; the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, are stationed at Khan Aranbeh and Al-Baath City in Quneitra, at the base of the 10th Brigade in Qantara; and the 313th Brigade are stationed in Sa’Sa.
On 29 June the Security Council passed Resolution 2426 (2018), which extended the mandate of the UNDOF until the end of this year, and it is almost certain to extend it beyond that. Yet if Iran succeeds in embedding its Shia militia these forces into the existing security forces in the south – and possibly political institutions in Syria like they have in Iraq – there may be a much greater level of shooting incidents, minelaying, and IED attacks from Syria into Israeli territory.
Whilst the challenges UNDOF face are substantial, they are by no means insurmountable, especially given the high priority that both Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attach to the 1974 agreement. Reports suggest that the Syrian army’s 61 and 90 brigades, as well as the Russian police, will deploy in the ceasefire line and the demilitarised area of separation zone and this could certainly help UNDOF. Meanwhile, the introduction of Moscow as a critical player in mediating and guaranteeing the emerging post-war system along the frontier is significant in further establishing Moscow as a key and indispensable player in the modern Middle East. It would have been inconceivable for Israel to agree to Russian forces near the Golan in 1974 (or even 2010 before the civil war started). Today, however, is a new era.