UNDOF: The Beginning of the End?

03/07/2013 11:34 am ET | Updated May 07, 2013

On March 6, Syrian rebel fighters in the Golan Heights region released footage of a UN peacekeepers' convoy which they claimed to have detained. The incident occurred near the Israeli border, with approximately 20 Filipino troops detained and taken to a rebel-designated "safe area." Intentional or not, the young, unsuspecting rebels speaking in the video may have set in motion a chain of events which may lead to a dangerous deterioration on the once-peaceful Israeli-Syrian border, with no turning back.

The convoy was seized by over 30 rebels after it allegedly entered a rebel combat zone near the UN-designated demilitarized zone which separates the Israeli and Syrian borders. In the video, rebels accused the UN force of assisting the Assad regime, while demanding the Syrian military withdraw from the nearby village of Jamla in exchange for their release. The rebels claimed to be part of the Yarmouk Brigade, a unit which includes radical jihadists and has taken part in recent fighting in the Golan Heights. The UN force has insisted that the troops did not enter a combat area.

There are currently over 1,000 foreign troops operating in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) which has been in place in the Golan Height's demilitarized zone since 1974, as part of a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Syria. Croatia recently withdrew all of its 100 troops from the UNDOF over concerns for their safety after it was reported that Croatian weapons were being delivered to rebel forces.

The seizure of UN troops was likely committed irrespective of the orders or policies of prominent opposition commanders or officials, both in Syria and abroad. Syrian rebels in the area likely sought to draw media attention to their plight, despite the long-term risks of loss of support from the international community.

The incident has already sparked outrage from the UN, the Philippines, and Western nations who are otherwise sympathetic to the Syrian opposition. Needless to say, the incident provided desperately needed political capital for the Assad regime and its allies.

As such, commanders within the Free Syrian Army and officials belonging to the Syrian National Coalition are likely to exert immense pressure on the Yarmouk Brigades to free the captured peacekeepers in an effort to stave off further international condemnation. Indeed, the incident could not have come at a worse time, particularly as key Western nations weigh the costs of arming the Free Syrian Army.

The Yarmouk Brigades, like many rebel fighting units, contain radical jihadists or members otherwise hostile to the non-Muslim states and those supportive of the Assad regime. In the past, these groups have staged kidnappings or targeted foreign interests believed to be affiliated with the Assad regime, primarily from Iran, Lebanon, and Russia. Currently, several Lebanese pilgrims continue to be held by Syrian rebels near the Turkish border after being kidnapped in 2012. Despite vocal Western support for the Syrian opposition, many rebel elements view the U.S. and its allies negatively, primarily for failing to come to their assistance during initial regime crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations at the outset of the conflict.

Additional attacks on UN peacekeepers threaten to further destabilize the border region, possibly raising the risks for a spillover of violence into Israeli territory. In recent months, rebel elements, including radical jihadists, have infiltrated the Golan Heights demilitarized zone, where the Syrian military is not allowed to enter under the ceasefire agreement. Since that time, fighting between the Syrian military and rebels near the Israeli border has resulted in numerous border violations, with several stray shells landing near Israeli communities and military posts. The Israeli military has returned fire in several of those instances.

The recent kidnapping is likely to increase pressure on foreign governments participating in the UNDOF to withdraw their troops over security fears. A swift ending to the current kidnapping would serve to alleviate those concerns, while a prolonged crisis could force the Philippines and other contributing nations to withdraw. Additional attacks on UN peacekeepers however, particularly those which result in casualties, could force withdrawals.

The Israeli government likely fears the consequences of any possible disengagement of the UNDOF, which until now has provided a buffer between both Syrian troops and rebel units. While the Syrian military is unlikely to engage in any provocations against the Israeli military, jihadist rebels in the region may seek to draw the IDF into the conflict in an effort to neutralize Syrian military forces in the area.

In the long term, rebel units are likely to increase their attacks in the Golan Heights area in an attempt to seize border crossings with Israel, a move which would constitute a highly symbolic victory. The rise in rebel activity has further coincided with Syrian military withdrawals to the Damascus area, and likewise threatens additional attacks on both peacekeepers and the Israeli military.

On March 5, Israel's UN mission delivered a letter to the UN Security Council warning that continued fighting in the DMZ threatened the security of Israeli civilians, and that their government would not "stand idle." In the event that the Syrian military or UNDOF force withdraws from the demilitarized zone and border area, the Israeli military will likely become increasingly assertive in defending against future cross border attacks. If Israel's past conflicts are any indicator, limited intervention into Syrian territory could be on the table, threatening to open up a new explosive chapter in the Syrian civil war.