US inspects terrain for policing a Golan deal: UN peace-keepers set to hand over after Israeli withdrawal

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AN AMERICAN rear-admiral from the Pentagon arrives in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights today. And next week, only hours after President Hafez al-Assad of Syria tells President Bill Clinton in Geneva that he still wants the return of all occupied Golan, the US Defense Department's Executive Agent for UN Operations, Major John Kintsev, will be turning up for his own briefing from the United Nations soldiers who have kept the peace in Golan for 19 long and freezing years. Everyone knows - but no one says - that the next 'buffer' force between the Israeli and Syrian armies is likely to be chiefly composed of US troops.

An Israeli withdrawal from Golan is a sine qua non in Damascus, whatever the conditions of that withdrawal may be. Months of negotiations are likely to follow Sunday's Assad-Clinton summit, but current thinking here suggests that a 16km-wide demilitarised buffer zone will be set up along the Israeli-Syrian frontier north of Lake Tiberias when - or if - Israel hands back all of Golan to Syria. One option would be to push the UN Area of Separation (AoS) - which runs along an 80km strip from Mount Hermon through Kuneitra to the Jordanian border - west to the internationally recognised Israeli frontier, before replacing UN troops with US peace-keepers.

Syria's determination to retrieve the Golan Heights should not obscure the complexity of the military talks which will have to precede any Israeli withdrawal. At present, the Israeli and Syrian armies are each limited to a total of 6,000 soldiers, 450 tanks and 162 artillery pieces within 25km of the UN's separation line, statistics which are bound to change - almost certainly in Israel's favour - if the Israelis pull back to their real frontier and revoke their annexation of the Syrian Golan.

But the Israeli officers in Golan are already trying to woo their Syrian opposite numbers. General Spiegle, the commander of Israeli troops on the Heights, and his colleagues have tried to send a wine and sweets to their Syrian opposite numbers in Damascus, an offer that was pointedly ignored by the potential recipients. No Syrian officer would accept a gift from an Israeli as long as Syria is technically at war with Israel - and certainly not while the Israelis continue to display the noticeboard which greets visitors to occupied Syrian land with the words: 'Welcome to Israel.'

Yet it is not difficult to see how quickly Israeli and Syrian personnel could be prepared for a redeployment. General Shafir, the Israeli officer who signed the original disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria after the 1973 war, is still a serving officer, while Major-General Tayara, the Syrian signatory to the disengagement documents, still holds the same post: Senior Syrian Arab Delegate for Golan. Israeli and Syrian officers have been liaising through UN officers along the frontlines since 1974, a system that could easily cover a redeployment.

Ever since they took up positions in Golan, the UN's Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) and Truce Supervisory Observers (UNTSO), have refused to accept Israel's territorial annexation. It is a policy that naturally finds favour with the Syrians.

UNDOF has a complement of 1,248 Polish, Canadian and Austrian soldiers with 225 UN observers. Even these small detachments, however, cost an annual dollars 35.46m ( pounds 23.7m) - a figure which is likely to be at least quadrupled if a US-led multi-national force of more than 10,000 men was to be inserted between Israelis and Syrians west of a liberated Golan. No one has calculated the cost of returning more than 100,000 Syrian refugees to the region to join around 45,000 Druze and Muslim villagers who still live there, let alone the cost of moving out an estimated 12,000 Israeli settlers.

Yet the Assad-Clinton summit is not going to be deflected by the cost of peace, even if it can draw some lessons from what must be the UN's most effective peace-keeping operation. Late last summer, it transpires, the UN ordered its observers to record only those Israeli aircraft ceasefire 'violations' above Golan which could be 'proved' to have passed over their lines - something almost impossible when a plane is at high altitude. The result was predictable: a sudden and dramatic fall in the number of provocations by the Israeli airforce - much to Syria's satisfaction. Which is presumably called 'bending the rules for peace'.