The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF)
In 1974, UN Security Council Resolution 350 established the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). The force was tasked with maintaining the ceasefire between Israel and Syria and supervising military disengagement on both sides of the ceasefire zone. UNDOF is likely to remain in the Middle East until all parties reach a comprehensive peace agreement. In December 2012, the Security Council extended the mission’s mandate until June 30, 2013.
In October 1973, war erupted in several parts of the Middle East, including in the Golan Heights, where Israeli and Syrian forces fought. By March 1974, the U.S. initiated diplomatic talks resulting in an "Agreement on Disengagement" between Israeli and Syrian forces. The agreement provided for an area of separation, created two equal zones each with limited forces and armaments, and established UNDOF.
To date, both parties continue to cooperate with UNDOF, despite tensions along the border and periodic breaches of the disengagement agreement. These incidents undermine regional stability and jeopardize the safety of UNDOF personnel operating in the Golan Heights. In March, 21 UN Peacekeepers were taken captive by rebel forces in the Syrian area of limitation, before being freed three days later. As the security situation in the region worsens, UNDOF plays a pivotal role in the mediation of conflict between Israel and Syria.
How This Affects American Interests
- Contributes to regional stability. UNDOF helps to promote stability in the region through disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces. With a death toll of 70,000, the two-year crisis in Syria has already spilled over into Lebanon and could provoke conflict between Israel and Syria. UNDOF’s efforts are critical to preventing further regional destabilization. UNDOF’s work is made possible not only through partnership with the United States, but also by employing a sizable number of local civilians among its staff, in an effort to better engage with the region in which it works.
- Continues to promote peace and security. UNDOF supervises the ceasefire and the “Agreement on Disengagement” between Syrian and Israeli forces. The Mission regularly inspects both parties’ military outfits to ensure that equipment and troop numbers remain at safe levels. During periods of tension, UNDOF meets with Syrian and Israeli authorities to prevent further destabilization.
- Provides neutral support. UNDOF assists in border demarcation and works with international non-governmental organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide vital services to civilians. From June to November 2012, UNDOF provided medical services to 245 civilians, including first aid and emergency medical treatment. In the same period, UNDOF assisted in the international transit of 137 students and 7 humanitarian workers, and facilitated the release of four Syrian civilians who were detained by Israeli Defense Forces.
- Clears landmines. UNDOF has instituted a minefield security and maintenance program in the area of separation which identifies, marks, and clears all minefields that pose a danger to UNDOF personnel and local inhabitants. The mission supports the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in promoting mine awareness among civilians, in particular children. UNDOF also works with local civilian mine-clearing projects.
- Safety of UN Peacekeepers. As the conflict in Syria continues, the safety of UNDOF personnel is increasingly compromised. UN military observers encounter gunfire occasionally, and in October 2012, artillery fired by Syrian armed forces impacted close to UNDOF’s headquarters. Armed Syrian troops also threatened UNDOF personnel at gunpoint in September and November 2012. Following media reports that Croatia was supplying arms to Syrian opposition fighters, the Croatian government announced in February 2013 that it would withdraw its soldiers from the UNDOF Peacekeeping force, as a safety precaution. In March 2013, 21 Peacekeepers were detained by Syrian opposition fighters in the Syrian area of limitation. After three days of captivity and negotiations between the UN and rebel forces, the 21 Filipino Peacekeepers were released in Jordan.
- Violations of Agreement on Disengagement. Over the last few months, Syrian armed forces and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have breached the 1974 Disengagement Agreement on several occasions. Most recently, in March, Israeli soldiers fired into Syria in response to shooting from a Syrian machinegun position in the Golan Heights. Heavy fighting between Syrian forces and members of the opposition spilled over into the area of separation from September to November 2012, including large ground offensives by up to 1700 Syrian troops. Artillery fire from both IDF and Syrian forces breached the ceasefire line on a number of occasions in September and November 2012, with Syrian officials reporting two fatalities in mid-November. Conflict in the area of separation has also affected civilians. As a result of the fighting, several hundred locals were forced to flee their villages in July and September 2012.
- UNDOF denied access. Both Israel and Syria continue to deny UNDOF inspection teams access to certain sites. The Mission’s movement has been particularly restricted in the southern and central regions of Syria’s area of limitation, both by Syrian armed forces and by members of the opposition. In November 2012, UNDOF personnel encountered hostile fire while trying to facilitate the safe passage of civilians out of a village to safety. The UN Secretary-General has urged both parties to ease imposed limitations on UNDOF’s mobility, as this prevents the peacekeepers from fulfilling their duties.
- Reaching a comprehensive peace agreement. The parties discontinued peace talks in December 2008; however, the UN Secretary-General continues to encourage peace negotiations. UNDOF is one of the longest running peacekeeping missions and will likely continue until the parties in the region reach a comprehensive peace agreement. Due to the on-going crisis in Syria and recent attacks in the area of separation, the Security Council extended UNDOF’s mandate until June 30, 2013.
*Updated April 2013