UN peacekeepers pull out of Syrian-Israeli DMZ as civil war edges closer

The eight peacekeepers, who were escorted into Israel by the IDF, are part of the same battalion as 21 UN troops who were captured by Syrian rebels on Wednesday.

Ariel Schalit/AP
A UN armored vehicle leaves the UNDOF camp to cross between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on Friday. Eight UN peacekeepers were withdrawn from Syria to the camp due to concerns about their safety amid fighting between rebels and government forces in Syria.

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In a stark illustration of how the Syrian civil war has the potential to end decades of calm in its neighbors as well, eight United Nations peacekeepers working in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria abandoned their posts today, saying they "feared for their lives."

Haaretz reports that the eight soldiers are in the same battalion as the 21 Filipino peacekeepers who were captured by Syrian rebels Wednesday. The captured UN peacekeepers were taken near the Syrian town of Jamlah, less than a mile from the border and the site of fierce fighting between regime and rebel troops. The rebels say they are holding the peacekeepers until Syrian Army troops leave the area around Jamlah.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have brought the eight who left their posts today into Israel in coordination with the UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) command. 

The UN has monitored the Golan Heights cease-fire line between Israel and Syria since 1974, when a demilitarized zone was formed between Israel and Syria following the1973 war. The border has been consistently quiet in the almost-four decades since the war's conclusion.

The rebels holding the peacekeepers said today that no talks are underway to free the captives and that they would not be released anytime soon, Reuters reports. In videos released yesterday, the peacekeepers said they were "being treated well."

Abu Essam Taseel, a spokesman for the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" brigade holding the peacekeepers, said that they had failed in their responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area, as mandated by a 1974 agreement. A "limited" number of tanks and troops are permitted within 13 miles of the disengagement line, Reuters reports. Taseel said that Syrian Army warplanes were bombing the rebels within a half-mile.

The UN reported in December that both the Army and rebels had violated the agreement and entered the demilitarized area and the Army has "affected adversely" UNDOF operations. Errant Syrian shelling has landed in Israeli territory multiple times in the past year.

In the report, the UN warned that "Recent incidents across the ceasefire line have shown the potential for escalation of tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, and jeopardize the ceasefire between the two countries."

UNDOF, which has enforced a truce that has lasted almost four decades, is considered one of the most successful UN missions in the world, Timor Goksel, a former senior UN official in the region, told the Associated Press. Much of the credit for that is attributed to President Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez.

Goksel, who works for the Al-Monitor news website, said the observers are "soft targets" in Syria's increasingly brutal civil war. Up to now they were "never challenged by anybody in Syria," he added.

The monitors' success may have been linked to a decision by Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, to comply with the armistice deal, including limits on military hardware allowed near the cease-fire line.

Moshe Maoz, an Israeli expert on Syria, said the UN mission's success was largely due to the Assads' decision to abide by the truce.

"When you are dealing with an army that follows orders, it is one thing," Maoz said. "Now you have different groups. They do not recognize international law and have no respect for any law or international morals. They are terrorist groups that know no bounds."

A halt to UNDOF operations would be "a bad thing for peace" an Israeli official told AP. UN officials said yesterday that security for UNDOF soldiers will "almost certainly" be "reexamined" after the incident. 

The Arab League's pronouncement yesterday that it would allow its members to arm the Syrian rebels – something the Gulf states are widely believed to already be doing – is likely to only increase the number of weapons flowing into the country.

At the end of yesterday's meeting in Cairo, a final statement was released that "stressed the right of each state according to its wishes to offer all types of self defense, including military, to support the resilience of the Syrian people and the Free (Syrian) Army," Reuters reports.

Lebanon, Iraq, and Algeria "refused to endorse" the statement. Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour warned after the meeting that the League's decision endangered his country, The Daily Star reports.

“We should be aware of the seriousness of what will come in the near future as a result of the decision to provide arms to Syria,” he said.

“Syria will become an open [battlefield],” he said.

“How will the weapons enter the country?” Mr. Mansour asked, adding: “They will not be carried by flying birds of course but will pass through neighboring countries.”

“How can we immunize the Lebanese borders to that?” he asked.

Lebanon is perhaps the most at risk of destabilization. Its porous border with Syria is tense, with both rebel fighters and Hezbollah fighters fighting with the Syrian regime crossing constantly between the two countries, prompting threats to bring the fighting itself into Lebanon. 

The Lebanese government has a strict policy of "disassociation" from Syria's conflict, and Mr. Mansour was slammed for what many Lebanese called a deviation from government policy by not going along with the Arab League decision and for calling for the reinstatement of Damascus's seat with the organization.

“I did not give up on Lebanon’s self dissociation policy. I did not take a side with any of those fighting in Syria,” Mansour defended himself.

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