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The Incredible Shrinking Buffer
UN Peacekeepers Face Crisis in the Golan Heights
BILAL Y. SAAB is Executive Director and Head of Research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, North America, and a Non-Resident Scholar at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.See more by this author
On the eve of a basketball game between the United States and Angola during the 1992 Olympics, a reporter asked NBA superstar Charles Barkley how he felt about the coming matchup. “I don’t know anything about Angola,” Barkley replied, “but Angola’s in trouble.”
Two weeks ago, a Lebanon-based journalist told me that a Salafi Syrian rebel commander gave him a similar response when asked what he thought about the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the multinational force put in place in May 1974 to preserve the cease-fire between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The mere presence of UNDOF, the militant said, would not change his military calculations nor make him more cautious in his fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It should come as a slight relief to peacekeepers that the prominent commander, whose group is active just a few miles away from their area of operations, did not seem to care much about UNDOF’s presence -- as opposed to actively trying to target it. But that will hardly be enough to reassure the international forces. Thanks to the raging civil conflict in Syria and the resurgence of extremists in the country and across the Middle East, UNDOF’s role is at serious risk for the first time in its history. The weakening of UNDOF will further destabilize an already dangerously unstable region.
UNDOF’s initial task, in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, was to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian troops from the buffer zone (a geographical area of separation that is approximately 50 miles long and ranges from 9 to 186 miles wide). It would be a gross exaggeration to credit UNDOF alone for the 40 years of peace that held along the border; what has maintained the calm all these years is the simple fact that neither country has wanted a war. Israel, for the most part, benefits from the status quo, particularly since the Golan Heights continues to provide it with strategic depth. Syria’s loss of territory to its historical enemy, although humiliating, was in many ways good for Damascus, too. All in the name of fighting Israel, the Assads were able to justify the consolidation of Alawite rule, build a police state, and eliminate any political opposition. Less concerned about Israeli military designs, the Assad regime has settled for waging proxy warfare against Israel through Hezbollah and Hamas.