UN Peacekeepers have been stationed in the Golan Heights since 1974. The mission, known as the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, deployed to the border region of Israel and Syria following a ceasefire in May 1974. Technically, UNDOF is supposed to monitor the “disengagement” of Israeli and Syrian forces along what is known as a “zone of separation.” This is essentially a narrow strip of land in the Golan region. On one side is Syria. On the other is Israeli occupied Golan Heights, land seized by Israel in the 1967 war.
The mission is relatively small, with just over 1,000 personnel. For most of its history, it’s mission has been fairly straightforward: to deter any infractions in the area of separation.
But the civil war in Syria has upended that conventional mission. Now, UNDOF forces main role is to ensure that the Syrian civil war does not spill over into the Golan heights border region. To that end, they have been mostly successful. Though a major incident did occur in 2014 in which several UNDOF peacekeepers were attacked and captured by an al Qaeda-linked militant group in Syria. They were eventually released.
This brings us to the events of this week, in which missiles flew in, near and around the Golan heights. The Israeli government says Iran-backed militants over the border in Syria fired on Israeli positions in the Golan. Israel quickly retaliated with airstrikes and artillery fire both in the Golan region and deep in Syria.
UNDOF, naturally, has called for restraint. They have been in contact with both sides and have urged a return to the status quo. So far, it would seem that Wednesday night’s barrage has calmed down. But the conflagration this week demonstrates that this once sleepy UN Peacekeeping outpost is being directly affected by ongoing conflict in the region. In situations like this, lightly armed peacekeeping troops don’t have much of an ability to deter heavily armed adversaries from going at each other. But they can — and do — help provide the sides with some breathing room once the fighting dies down. They are also an important interlocutor between combatants. This is an important role to play — and a this point, this is about the most UNDOF can do.