Two international forces in search of a role

Two international forces in search of a role
Analysis: The region's old structures do not fit into the new Middle East. Nothing illustrates this better than forces like UNDOF and the MFO: created to observe ceasefires but now cast adrift by unspoken agreements or full-blown rebellions.
6 min read
03 February, 2015
UNDOF, like the MFO in the Sinai, is in search of a function (AFP)
  • When Israel and its Egyptian and Syrian opponents established a new Middle East in the wake of the October 1973 war, two new institutions – the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) – were created.

    The MFO, led by the United States, was established to monitor the demilitarization of Sinai. UNDOF was established by the UN Security Council to confirm adherence to similar understandings on the Golan. The creation and deployment of these new institutions not only signalled a new and conflict-less Middle East, they also anchored the international community in support of its maintenance and longevity.

    That era has come to an end. Today, the issues current in the Golan and Sinai, and the challenges faced by the internationally supported institutions deployed to keep the peace, bear no relationship to those that grew out of the 1973 war. The game has changed and so have the rules governing it.

    But what about the peace monitoring operations created by the international community? They remain as they were originally conceived almost one half century ago, tasked to perform jobs that today are difficult if not impossible to perform -- built to preserve a peace that, if it exists, does so on a basis entirely different, and in the case of the MFO, on terms that contradict concerns that prompted their creation in the first place.

    As the director-general of the MFO David Satterfield wrote recently:

    “The security situation in the Sinai brings the Parties and the MFO together to face conditions beyond the contemplation of the drafters of the Treaty of Peace and the 1981 Protocol establishing the MFO. The security circumstances in the Sinai today were unimaginable when the Treaty and its Protocol were drafted.”

    The first monitors wearing the MFO patch deployed to Sinai under US leadership in 1981.

    The MFO is tasked to:

    operate checkpoints, observation posts and conduct reconnaissance patrols on the international border as well as within Zone C (near the border with Israel);
  • Verify adherence to the terms of the peace treaty not less than twice a month;
  • Ensure freedom of international marine navigation in the Strait of Tiran and unhindered access to the Gulf of Aqaba.

On the Golan front a ceasefire, including a separation of forces and limitations on military deployments rather than formal peace reigned. To monitor this new relationship between Jerusalem and Damascus, the UN Security Council created UNDOF in 1974, and every year since it has dutifully extended its mandate.

Under UNDOF’s supervision, a line (the Alpha Line) was drawn in the west, not to be crossed by Israeli forces. Similarly the Bravo Line not to be crossed by Syrian forces, to the east. UNDOF operates checkpoints and patrols in this buffer zone. Extending 25 km to either side is the Area of Limitation (AOL) where UNDOF, and Observer Group Golan (OGG) observers under its command, supervise the number of Syrian and Israeli troops and weapons.

Decades overturned

Peace is boring. Each side remains committed to upholding its end of the bargain and sees no reason to alter the rules of the game. Such was the case for decades on Israel’s frontiers with Syria and Egypt. Secondment to the MFO or UNDOF represented nothing as much as an extended vacation for soldiers from around the world. These institutions, created to sanctify and observe understandings that each side saw no reason to challenge, reflected rather than enforced the absence of conflict. Sinai was so quiet that the Pentagon, under the leadership of Donald Rumsfeld, argued unsuccessfully in favour of disbanding the MFO.

For many years prior to the revolt in Sinai, Egypt unsuccessfully sought Israeli approval to deploy forces and equipment beyond the limits established by the treaty. Israel showed some flexibility, enabling Egypt to deploy extra forces to the Gaza frontier when Israel “disengaged” in 2005, but this was a minor exception to a general rule – the terms of the treaty were sacrosanct – the treaty would not be amended and the constraints on Egypt’s rearmament in Sinai would remain.

Those halcyon days have ended, never to return. The Sinai has been transformed from a pacific sideshow to the frontline of a region-wide religious militant assault on the status quo, prompting the deployment in Sinai of Egyptian forces otherwise prohibited by the terms of its treaty with Israel.

The collapse of security in the Sinai has forced Israel to agree with Egyptian demands to make wholesale if mutually agreed exceptions to the treaty’s restrictions on Egyptian military forces east of the Suez Canal. Egyptian combat troops, tanks, Apache helicopters and intelligence assets like fixed wing aircraft have been introduced into the Sinai, and they have made a critical contribution to Cairo’s grinding counterinsurgency assault.

The MFO was established to monitor such violations of the treaty. But what is left to do when Israel and Egypt have agreed to such transgressions?

Egypt and Israel have always supported the MFO as a symbol of international support for their rapprochement. In that general sense the MFO continues to serve this function.

In any case, the MFO has more pressing problems than monitoring adherence to treaty terms both sides have agreed to ignore. It must first keep safe in the deteriorating security environment in which it now finds itself.

Most of the MFO’s energies these days are devoted to its own protection – increasing security of its locations in Sinai, ending patrols in “soft” vehicles, using aircraft to move from base to base -- and rightly so. At what point will the dangerous realities of its operating environment in Sinai call into question the symbolic value of forces who are able to do little more than watch their back?

The situation on the Golan is if anything more problematic. With the support of Syria and Israel, the UNSC dutifully extends UNDOF’s mandate in 6-month increments, most recently in December. But the Golan along the ceasefire line is the Wild West, with the blue helmets of UNDOF trying their best to stay out of the kaleidoscope of conflict that has transformed the area.

Egypt closes Gaza border over Sinai unrest. Read more

Its best efforts have not been enough. Last August for example, al-Nusra Front fighters captured 45 Fijian peacekeepers and trapped two contingents of Filipino troops at separate UN locations.

The soldiers were able to escape but not before reportedly killing three members of al-Nusrah Front.

As in Sinai, international forces originally deployed as a mark of international support for an Israel-Arab rapprochement now find themselves hostage to dangers on the ground that they were not built to confront and representative of a framework to maintain the peace that is increasingly irrelevant. In this new Middle East, both the MFO and UNDOF are fading echoes of a past that cannot be recovered.