Subscriber OnlyCrime & Law

Irish troops in the Valley of Tears: Peacekeepers caught up in rising tensions on Israel-Syria border

The Israel-Hamas conflict has had a significant impact on the Undof mission in the Golan, which involves more than 130 Defence Forces personnel

In groups of three and four, sleepy-looking Irish soldiers make their way on to the bus waiting outside Beirut airport in Lebanon.

About 30 of them are returning from leave and embarking on the journey by road back to the Golan where they are serving with the 68th Infantry Group. The men (all but two of the 68th are men) exchanged stories of their holidays. One went to Egypt (“it was savage, lads”) and another to Las Vegas, despite being only 20 and not old enough to drink or gamble.

Most returned home to see families and friends. A soldier complains of spending the last seven hours hanging around an airport with no wifi. It’s early in the morning and everyone is tired but in good spirits.

They share photos of Kala, one of the camp dogs who just had puppies. They discuss plans to grow beards under the Defence Forces’ newly liberalised grooming rules.


There is a discussion about what to expect from the Kazakhstani peacekeepers who will be bunking with the 68th for the next month in advance of replacing the Irish contingent entirely in April. Only one soldier makes a Borat joke.

Most soldiers fall asleep shortly after the bus sets out on its four-hour journey into Syria and down to its border with Israel. Outside the window are sheepherders, illicit petrol hawkers and beleaguered-looking Syrian Armed Forces soldiers, some wearing just half a uniform.

These soldiers are a bit “dad’s army”, someone explains. The better-equipped troops are sent to the north where Syria’s 13-year-old civil war continues to rumble on.

Every second building displays a portrait of the country’s dictator Bashar al-Assad. There is an image of Assad smiling with the troops, Assad dressed like a Top Gun pilot and Assad looking relaxed in an open necked shirt.

In the midafternoon the bus arrives into Camp Faouar, in the Golan, the headquarters of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) and the 68th’s home for the last five months.

The 136 Irish troops in Syria have a unique task. They serve as Undof’s “Quick Reaction Force” (QRF), meaning they must be constantly prepared to respond if any other UN post or patrol comes under attack in the mission’s area of operations.

Once someone shouts “Garryowen”, the QRF gathers at their Mowag Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) where their rifles and body armour are waiting for them. The goal is to get out the gate in 15 minutes. Constant repetition and training means they can now do it in five.

“It’s day and night, 24/7,” says Capt Tara Khan. “When you hear the call on the radio, the heartbeat goes up. You just have to get here as quick as possible.”

Unlike the Defence Forces’ other major overseas mission with Unifil in south Lebanon, the troops in the Golan have little dealings with local civilians.

“It’s a mission almost totally focused on soldiering,” says one noncommissioned officer.

Undof marks its 50th anniversary this year, making it one of the oldest ongoing peacekeeping missions. It was established in 1974 following the Yom Kippur war during which Syria, along with other Arab countries invaded Israel, with the goal of retaking the Golan Heights.

Syrian forces made rapid inroads into the area before being pushed back by Israel. The fighting ended with a UN-enforced ceasefire which created a buffer zone between the two countries, known as the area of separation, and limited the number of military units that could be stationed on either side. It is Undof’s mission to enforce the separation and monitor any build-ups of troops.

The Defence Forces first deployed to Undof in 1998 and remained for a year. In 2013, with countries pulling out their troops due to the outbreak of civil war, the UN asked Ireland to return. Irish troops have been there ever since.

All of this makes Undof a particularly sensitive mission. It’s easy to give offence to one side or another by using the wrong terminology. Irish officers use the term “alpha side forces” when referring to the Israeli Defence Forces to avoid upsetting their Syrian hosts. For the same reason, the Israeli-controlled sector, which is not recognised internationally, is called “occupied Syrian Golan”.

These sensitivities mean visits by journalists are rare. The Irish Times is among the first western reporters to visit the area of operation in 20 years. Visits by politicians are rarer still. The pariah status of the Assad regime in the West means someone such as Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin could not visit the troops without it being seen as a tactic endorsement of the regime in some circles.

On Wednesday morning, with an Israeli spy balloon hanging lazily on the horizon, the QRF was getting ready to be put through its paces again. Under the training scenario, Undof outpost OP71, manned by Nepalese troops and two unarmed truce observers had come under attack.

Capt Gerry Duff, the brother of footballer Damien, relayed the orders to Private Caolain Galligan and makes him repeat them back: “Indirect fire from the west. Rounds impacting 200m from the perimeter fence. No casualties at the moment. No armed elements visible. The QRF are tasked with reinforcing OP71.”

A few minutes later, the troops drive out the gate, bound for OP71.

Manning the radio in our vehicle is Airman Sean Rainsford. Not only is it his first mission, it’s his first trip abroad.

“It’s the worst place to be. I was nervous coming over but it’s a good spot, it’s a good experience.”

Nonetheless, he thinks he might try Spain for his next trip.

On arriving at the post, the APCs take up defensive positions at the gate while troops man machine gun posts in the towers, prepared to drive away the notional attackers.

With the exercise over, there’s time for the troops to chat with their Nepalese counterparts and take in the view.

Looking down from the outpost, it becomes clear why Undof is still needed: on one side, in Mount Hermon, is a place of pilgrimage and reverence for Middle Eastern communities going back to prehistory. On one snow-covered peak is an Israel radar site that co-ordinates its Iron Dome missile defence system.

Down in the valley, on the Syrian side, is the ancient village of Hadar and its predominantly Druze population. It has been targeted by Israeli missiles on multiple occasions in recent years following activity by Iranian-linked militants in the area.

The convoy drives on to a remote outpost to the south manned by a handful of Uruguayan troops equipped with two ageing armoured personnel carriers. Evidence of current and historic conflicts dot the landscape.

The husks of second World War-era Russian T-34 tanks can be seen over stone walls. Everywhere there are defensive positions, built from stones and ready to be occupied at a moment’s notice. Following a heavy rain, the landscape can look remarkably like Connemara.

A relatively new addition is the Russia barracks which started appearing in the Golan after Moscow agreed to help Assad fight back the rebels who took over much of the area during the civil war.

These convoys are important as it’s vital the Irish drivers know these roads like the back of their hands as technology can be unreliable. If it’s launching an attack, Israel will often scramble the GPS system in the area. Departing that morning, the computer showed the convoy was near Beirut airport.

The Irish vehicles pass through the village of Quneitra, which today is no more than a pile of rubble. It looks like it was destroyed in an air strike but in reality, Israeli settlers pulled down the buildings using machinery before they were made hand it back to Syria as part of the 1974 peace settlement. There is a good reason the Golan is known as the Valley of Tears.

The October 7th attacks on Israel by Hamas, and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza occurred many miles away but have had a very real impact on the Undof mission. Groups affiliated with Lebanon’s Hizbullah have launched attacks on Israel along the Syrian border in the hope of diverting troops from Gaza.

In response, Israel has launched drone and artillery strikes on its attackers. They also often bomb Syrian Armed Forces outposts, which is interpreted as an unsubtle way of prompting Damascus to crack down on armed groups using Syrian territory to attack Israel.

This has had a direct impact on Irish operations. Since arriving in October, the 68th has had to take cover in the bomb shelter – known as “going to groundhog” – on four occasions.

Undof troops have had to increase patrols of the fence separating Israel from the area of separation to prevent farmers straying too close. In the past, Israel forces just arrested these wanderers; now they shoot at them.

The Irish QRF had responded to the aftermath of Israeli strikes on multiple occasions, including last December when an Israeli drone blew up a car carrying suspected Hizbullah militants. During our weeklong visit, there are Israeli strikes on Hadar and Damascus.

The presence of Russian forces in the area doesn’t help. Russian helicopters have buzzed the Irish camp twice in recent months.

The real risk for Irish troops is “arriving into something that is occurring or has just occurred”, says the 68th’s commanding officer Lieut Col Oliver Clear.

The events of October made the Colonel “very much aware” of his responsibility to keep his troops safe.

“You like hearing the patrols coming back in the gate each day.”

Lieut Col Clear’s other challenge is winding down Irish participation in Undof and transporting €23 million worth of equipment back through one of the world’s most complex borders one month from now.

Some in the Defence Forces believe the generals are closing down the wrong mission.

“There’s more to do here, less restrictions, more freedom of action,” one officer notes, comparing it to Unifil in south Lebanon.

Military management says it needs to withdraw from Syria to free up troops for the EU Battlegroup which is being stood up this year.

Meanwhile, one officer says Undof will remain until the job is done, “whether that takes another 50 years or 500 years”.

  • See our new project Common Ground, Evolving Islands: Ireland & Britain
  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here