Irish Foreign Minister: We May Leave Golan Force

The withdrawal of the Irish contingent could be a body blow from which the UN peacekeeping force may not recover.

Moshe Cohen ,

Filipino UN peacekeepers
Filipino UN peacekeepers
AFP file

Ireland is considering dropping out of the UN peace force on the Golan Heights, after dozens of Filipino peacekeepers were kidnapped by Islamist rebel groups on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border. Speaking Sunday, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said that he did not want to see Irish soldiers serving on behalf of the UN “sucked into a Syrian civil war.”

The kidnapping and subsequent escape of over 70 Filipino Golan peacekeeping soldiers has sent shock waves among all the members of the international delegation that serve in the UNDOF outfit, which has been in place since shortly after the 1973 Yom Kippur War to keep Syrian army and IDF troops at bay. With the breakdown of the Syrian government and heavy losses by the Syrian Army to Islamist rebel groups, the Syrian Golan has been the scene of heavy fighting between both sides. On Saturday, Syrian officials announced fresh losses on the Golan to rebel groups, after a new round of fierce fighting.

A similar fate could await Irish troops, Flanagan said Sunday. "This is a crisis; the situation remains extremely tense and my department is in daily contact with the UN. “The time scale of the UN review of the ongoing viability of the mission is short-term and urgent. We don't want to see Irish troops or the UN contingent being drawn into a Syrian civil war," he added

The withdrawal of Irish troops could be a blow that the UN forces on the Golan would not be able to withstand, observers said. The Irish are the best-equipped and best-defended among the 1,200 soldiers of the UN member countries who send soldiers to the Golan, and their withdrawal could frighten off other countries' soldiers from serving.

Over the past year, the UNDOF force has had its peacekeepers seized by armed groups, its observation posts attacked and looted, and its freedom of movement curtailed. Tensions have been high on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights lately, as fighting in the area intensifies between rebels and the Syrian army.

Meanwhile, as fighting intensifies between Syrian army troops and Islamist rebels, the IDF has increased its presence on the Golan Heights. Security officials fear that the fighting could “spill over” the Israeli border.

A senior Israeli security official said that the IDF had recently changed its conception of defense on the Golan. A group of highly trained and experienced soldiers who know the terrain well are now on duty at all times, constituting a forward force ready to deal with trouble as it develops.