Long before Wednesday’s kidnapping of UN peacekeepers in the Syrian Golan Heights, segments of the the United Nations Disengagement Observation Force (UNDOF) knew their mission was taking a turn for the worse.
In January, the Japanese government, alarmed by the quickly deteriorating security situation in southern Syria, withdrew its troops from UNDOF, bringing the number of peacekeepers to below 1,000.
After the current hostage crisis is resolved, the remaining countries that make up UNDOF – the Philippines, India, and Austria – may choose to reconsider their presence, as battles rage between Syrian rebels, some of them radical jihadis, and the Assad regime.
UNDOF was established in 1974 to act as a wedge between Israeli and Syrian forces, and oversee the ceasefire in place since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But today, UNDOF is struggling to carry out its duties in the upheavals of a Syria ravaged by a bloody civil war.
The IDF is prepared for the possibility of an UNDOF withdrawal, just as it is ready for the presence of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (The Salvation Front), a rebel organization set up by al-Qaida in Iraq. According to recent security evaluations, radical rebel elements have established control in a number of Syrian villages close to the Israeli border, and are now in the midst of intense fighting with the Syrian army in the village of Jamla, also close to the border.
Israel has long been on high – yet quiet – alert on its border with Syria, as the IDF observes the battles taking place under its nose, just over the frontier.
Soldiers can hear artillery fire and see the movement of rebel gunmen and Syrian soldiers. Although a new border fence with electronic sensors has been erected, the army is under no illusion that a hi-tech obstacle can stop all attacks. It is preparing for the potential of future jihadi attacks from the Syrian Golan, which might take the form of shells, small arms fire, attempts to infiltrate the border or bombings.
The current UN hostage crisis is being viewed by the IDF as an internal Syrian affair which has no direct consequences for Israeli security. At the same time, it is an unmistakable signal that the Syrian Golan is heading down the road of anarchy, and is quickly becoming a hotbed for gunmen with radical affiliations as Syria continues its slow-motion collapse.