As the Syrian civil war escalates, it is increasingly spilling over Syria’s borders to threaten Syria’s neighbors and the long-established U.N. peacekeeping forces deployed along Syria’s border with Israel.
On Wednesday, Syrian rebels captured 21 peacekeeping troops from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights near the village of Al Jamlah. The rebel unit, calling itself the “Martyrs of Yarmouk,” released a video and demanded that Syrian army forces withdraw from the area.
Although they initially threatened to treat the UNDOF hostages, reported to be members of a Filipino unit, as prisoners of war, the rebels subsequently claimed that they rescued the UNDOF personnel from “the criminal shelling of Assad’s gangs.” They have requested that the U.N. send someone to collect the troops. The Free Syrian Army, the mainstream rebel organization that has sought to unify armed opposition efforts, denounced the kidnapping.
Israel is concerned that the U.N. peacekeeping force, deployed in a neutral zone between the Israeli and Syrian armies after the 1973 Arab–Israeli war, will be withdrawn. This would allow hard-line Islamist opposition forces to establish control of the neutral zone and use it as a base for terrorist attacks against Israel. Israeli territory has also been hit by artillery fire from Syrian army units battling the rebels close to the border. The Israeli ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor, warned on March 4 that Israel would not “stand idle as the lives of its citizens are being put at risk by the Syrian government’s reckless actions.”
The fighting is also increasingly spilling over Syria’s eastern border with Iraq. Iraq closed a northern border crossing on Thursday after nine Iraqi soldiers and 48 Syrian soldiers were killed earlier in the week in rebel attacks. The Syrian soldiers were being escorted back to Syria after fleeing across the border to escape rebel attacks. Syrian rebels now control much of the border areas and earlier this week seized Raqqa in central Syria, the first provincial capital to fall to the opposition.
Violence in Syria continues to escalate as the U.N. released new figures indicating that the number of refugees fleeing Syria had surpassed the 1 million mark. The Arab League stepped up diplomatic pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime by allowing the Syrian opposition to occupy Syria’s seat in that forum. It has given carte blanche to member states to offer military aid to the rebels.
Meanwhile, the United States appears to be increasingly irrelevant in determining the future of Syria. The Obama Administration’s policy of providing too little aid too late prompted Syrian opposition leaders last week to threaten to boycott the Rome conference on aiding the opposition, which was billed as the highlight of Secretary of State John Kerry’s first foreign trip. Kerry secured their participation in the conference by promising to channel non-military aid directly to the opposition, rather than through nongovernmental organizations. But the Syrian opposition remains disgruntled at the lack of military aid from the U.S. and other Western countries.
Sarah Field is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.