Shifting Sands in the Peacekeeping Business


The established templates of international peace operations are under threat, because the core premise of these operations, consent, is eroding .

Filipino and Fijian troops serving with the UNDOF mission in the Golan Heights were targeted by the Nusra Front last week (30 Aug). A number of Fijians have been captured while the Filipinos managed to get extricated through the assistance of the 44th Irish Infantry Group. So far so good.

However, Nusra have not been neutralized. Neither has the Islamic State been contained, still less has the re-establishment of state authority in chunks of Iraq and Syria been achieved. Apart from any new threats emerging in this volatile region from increasingly vigorous and militarized political groups harbouring genocidal tendencies there is another reason to be worried about these developments and their implications for regional stability in the Middle East.

UNDOF was established in 1974 as an interpositional force between Israel and Syria following the Yom Kippur war. The core premises of any peacekeeping operation are the triumvirate of impartiality, consent and minimum use of force. Notwithstanding the predictable difficulties that these missions might encounter on the ground, a very significant shift is now occurring that security sector analysts and peace operation strategists will likely need to account for.

The new difficulty centers on the principle of consent and its relationship to the state actors. The consent principle was traditionally based on the assumption that the state actors who were party to an interstate conflict had retained what Max Weber called the monopoly on legitimate force within a given territory. As long as Syria and Israel were the only actors in town then the UNDOF force could carry out its mission. The Middle East is replete with fractious groupings and militant organizations operating at the sub state level. The UNIFIL mission in southern Lebanon is testament to the miscalculation of the UN in assuming that the consent of the state (Lebanon) was synonymous with the consent of all the actors within the state. We know different now.

More recently, especially post Balkans, the UN has been less inclined to simply assume the consent of high profile parties. While they have sought the traditional form of consent from key state actors, they have concluded that any force must be sufficiently beefed up, in terms of logistics and rules of engagement, to ensure that their deployment and mission objectives were not derailed by militants.

The warning from the past should not be lost on those strategizing the UN’s peace operations in the contemporary Middle East. The dynamic has changed dramatically. Islamic State and the unleashing of Islamist militants (and Syria itself is guilty of this) has turned the relatively firm ground of interstate relations into a quagmire of uncertainty where the state can no longer guarantee stability. The premises of long established peace operations are now dissolving. Syria’s grip on the monopoly of force within its borders was effectively delegitimized with the West’s support for the opposition groups birthed during the Arab Spring. With Assad looking more entrenched (Syrian artillery helped stave off Nusra’s threatened attack of the UN Filipino base), and with the West’s rhetoric against Assad suspiciously absent, there is at least a recognition that all the key states have an interest in stabilizing the situation. The problem is that the monopoly of states over armed force is now under severe pressure. Iraq’s monopoly was shown to be impotent against the break out of IS. Even though IS and Nusra have effectively divided, Assad, Iraq as well as Western and Arab states must continue to confront them both because they present a clear and present danger, not least to the equilibria that allows peace operations to function.

IS represents many dangers for Middle East stability, but for the established peace operations that have copperfastened decades old ceasefires it represents a wholly new kind of pressure. Arguably, the more obscure a peace operation is, the more successful we might consider it. But old certainties that allowed the UNDOF mission to recede into obscurity are gone. If the principle states do not regain control of the situation soon the conditions that permitted the cessation of hostilities for four decades along the Golan might unravel.

Not for nothing did Israel cut a deal with Hamas recently; their attention drawn to the fluid and highly charged spread of radical Islamist militants across the Middle East. In short, this development has questioned the Westphalian premises of the region, and shown the borders between established states to be fragile constructs at best.

What we are really witnessing through the UNDOF incident and the wider mess that is the Islamic State debacle is a radical questioning of state authority in the region and, along with that, the foundations of established peace operations. We have had the questioning of state authority before, of course, in the protests of what was optimistically called the Arab Spring. But there it was about re-establishing the existing state under a new regime. With IS we are looking at the partial cannibalization of two states under a different premise.

The Islamic State will not survive, of course, despite the failure of Western and Arab regional powers to get a grip on the situation. It will not survive because the militants in charge of it are fractious, arbitrarily bloodthirsty and their emasculated concept of statehood is simply incompatible with the twenty-first century global economy. In the end, despite all the differences, established states share several commonalities: they are ambitious for stability and economic development. But the failure of IS to establish a viable state or Nusra to dislodge Assad’s regime are not important. If the Filipino contingent pulls out, as their government has indicated, and the conditions for the UNDOF mission continue to deteriorate, the stability along the Golan may well be placed in jeopardy. That is a far more interesting development for the ideologues that trade on antipathy towards Israel.

Image courtesy of Irish Defence Forces

Dr Kenneth Houston is a former member of the Irish Defence Forces, serving three tours of duty with UNIFIL in southern Lebanon. He now lectures in International Relations at Webster University Thailand.


About Kenneth Houston

Kenneth Houston coordinates the undergraduate International Relations program at Webster University’s Thailand campus. He holds a PhD in politics and an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. He was previously a research intern at the INCORE institute at the University of Ulster. His research interests lie in the areas of religion and politics, European politics, conflict studies and power.

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