Syria told Israel through a UN mediator on Thursday that its tanks and armored personnel carriers that moved inside the disengagement zone along the border were “solely for the purpose of fighting the armed members of opposition and asked that the IDF not take action,” according to a UN document.
Nabil Abi Saab, a UN correspondent for Al Hurra, the US-funded Arabic language satellite television station, tweeted the document on Saturday. The document was submitted to the UN Security Council on Friday that was discussing Thursday’s battles in Syria, where UN peacekeepers were injured and the Quneitra border crossing with Israel was temporarily taken over by the Syrian opposition.
The document was prepared by Herve Ladsous, the UN undersecretary-general for Peacekeeping Operations.
According to the document, the IDF informed the commander of the UN Disengagement Observer Force that, should the movement of the tanks continue, the IDF would take action.
This message was passed on to UNDOF’s main Syrian interlocutor, who said that the tanks were there to fight the opposition and asked Israel not to take action.
According to the document, during heavy clashes between the Syrian army and the opposition in the area of separation on the Golan, the Syrians moved five battle tanks and five armored personnel carriers into the area, moving in the direction of Quneitra.
The “area of separation” is a 72 km. narrow strip that runs from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan. The Syrian army, after several hours of clashes, regained control of the crossing point at Quneitra.
“Currently, four main battle tanks and three armored personnel carriers remain in the area of separation, in violation of the Disengagement Agreement,” the document read.
The clashes on Thursday triggered Austria’s announcement that it would remove its 380 troops from UNDOF, sending UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon scrambling to look for other countries to take their place.
Russia, a long-time ally and arms supplier to Syrian President Bashar Assad, offered to replace the Austrian peacekeepers, but the idea was rejected by the UN, with spokesman Martin Nesirky explaining that the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement bars permanent members of the Security Council from the UN observer mission.
Following the offer, Putin spoke with Netanyahu, the third time the two men have spoken in the last month about the situation in Syria. Israel had no comment on the Russian offer.
Reuters quoted a diplomat as saying that Moscow’s support for Assad means Russian troops might not be seen as neutral by Syria’s rebels, which could invite opposition attacks on the UN Golan force.
Nesirky said it was impossible at the moment for the UN to accept the offer from Russia, that along with the US, Britain, France and China is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the 15-nation Security Council.
“We appreciate the consideration that the Russian Federation has given to provide troops to the Golan,” he told reporters. “However, the Disengagement Agreement and its protocol, which is between Syria and Israel, do not allow for the participation of permanent members of the Security Council in UNDOF.”
British Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant, president of the Security Council this month, said after a special council session on the UNDOF crisis that the force should remain in place, even if its numbers were temporarily reduced.
The UN peacekeeping department is asking the other countries in the force, the Philippines and India, to consider increasing their troop contributions, and was also looking at the possibility of new countries sending troops, Lyall Grant said.
“At the same time [they are] trying to encourage the Austrians to slow down their departure from the theater and dissuade any other troop contributors from withdrawing troops,” he said.
Ladsous had talked about increasing the force back to its mandated figure of 1,250, Lyall Grant said.
One council diplomat said that Ladsous had made clear while briefing the council behind closed doors that allowing Russian peacekeepers on the Golan might be too complicated legally and he would prefer to find other troop contributors.
Fiji has said that it will send troops to replace a Croatian contingent that has already pulled out. Japanese troops have also been withdrawn because of the Syrian violence.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said his country was well aware of the limitation in the document signed four decades ago, which is why Putin had said it would depend on whether countries in the region – namely Syria and Israel – and the United Nations, wanted Russian troops there.
“We believe that times have changed,” Churkin told reporters, adding that it was theoretically possible to amend the protocol that bars permanent council members from UNDOF. “The document was signed 39 years ago at the height of [the] Cold War and the whole context of the [Yom Kippur] War in 1973,” he said. “Now the context is completely different and UNDOF seems to be in dire straits. So we are offering essentially to rescue UNDOF.”
He said UN legal experts had been asked to look at whether a new resolution would be needed if the Russian offer of troops was taken up.