For the second time in 14 months, dozens of peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) have been kidnapped in the no-man’s-land separating Syria from the Israeli-controlled section of the Golan Heights.
According to an August 28 UN statement, 43 peacekeepers “were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah.” An additional 81 peacekeepers were being “restricted to their positions” at two bases south of the area where the kidnapping reportedly occurred.
In incidents March and May of 2013, an armed anti-regime Syrian opposition group called the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade abducted a total of 25 peacekeepers in the Golan, although they were released after a few days.
The abduction took place after days of militant activity inside of the disengagement zone. On August 27, the al Qaeda-aligned jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly took control of Quneitra, an abandoned city between Israeli and Syrian positions in the Golan.
According to Buzzfeed, the UN believes that Jabhat al Nusra is responsible for the kidnapping.
An additional 81 peacekeepers were being “restricted to their positions” at two bases south of Qunitra.
The area where the kidnappings reportedly ocurred sits right below the Mount Bental overlook, a popular tourist attraction in the Israeli-controlled Golan, and just a few hundred meters from Israeli highway 98. In a juxtaposition strange even by regional standards, UN peacekeepers are holed up in an anarchic no-man’s-land within easy walking distance of an almost-normal security environment.
Qunitra has a high concentration of UN forces and bases, and is home to a seldom-used border crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan — Syria has invaded Israel on three occasions, and the two countries are officially in a state of war.
UNDOF was established after the 1973 Middle East War to oversee the truce between Israel and Syria that followed Syria’s October 1973 invasion of Israel — and the successful Israeli counter-attacks that pushed Hafez al-Assad’s army beyond its pre-conflict front line.
The mission is too small to keep the Syrian and Israeli militaries apart by force of arms –UNDOF has 1,249 lightly-armed troops, which means that this incident has put a full 10% of the peacekeepers out of commission.
Rather, the force is an added layer of insurance for a military balance that has stayed remarkably stable for decades: since 1973, the Golan border has been Israel’s quietest. And the 1973 misadventure convinced Syria not to attempt another conventional invasion of Israel in the intervening decades.
UNDOF’s decades of success arguably have little to do with it, and the Syrian civil war has only exposed the force’s shortcomings. There have been a number of instances in which militants from inside of Syria have attempted to attack Israeli positions or fired from in or around the disengagement zone — incidents which UNDOF has proven incapable of stopping.
This latest incident reveals that the UN has essentially lost the ability to police the no-man’s-land. This was perhaps inevitable: UNDOF is a leftover of the era of inter-state warfare between Israel and its neighbours, when battles were decided by armour, troop maneuvers, and air power. Its there to keep two conventional armies away from each other, and on those very narrow criteria, and for reasons having little to do with it, it’s been a success.
But UNDOF is ill-equipped to deal with the more chaotic asymmetrical warfare that’s currently tearing through the Middle East. UNDOF has arguably done its job — but a rapidly changing region has left it impotent and exposed, and left with UN with a hostage crisis involving one of Syria’s most vicious armed groups.
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