On March 24, soldiers lowered the Canadian flag over the Golan Heights for the final time, drawing to a close Operation DANACA, the Canadian contribution to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) that spanned 32 years and saw over 12,000 personnel serve.

During that time, Canada contributed the majority of the UNDOF 2nd Line Logistics Battalion, a regular rotation of 190 support specialists who provided general logistics support to the mission – from transportation to finance, engineering, supply, maintenance, communications as well as military police. The contribution also included at times force commanders and chiefs of staff.

The mission was never glamorous – logistics rarely are – but it was invaluable to UNDOF and helped ensure security and stability in the region, says Lieutenant-Colonel Sylvain Mongeon, the last Canadian Task Force Commander.

“When things go right in support, the mission goes right. And Canada was always able to support that mission extremely well. I think that is one of the things that will be most sorely missed from the mission’s perspective. Support is not sexy, but when it’s not there, everybody knows. The support we gave over those 32 years was second to none.”

UNDOF was established in 1974 to monitor a cease-fire between Syria and Israel and maintain a buffer zone. With troops already committed to the UN Emergency Force monitoring the Sinai, and a familiarity with the region, Canada was readily able to transfer resources to the Golan, a 1,250-kilometre plateau descending from rugged mountains along the Lebanon border in the north to arid desert in the south.

“We’ve been a key element of the force,” said Mongeon, whose final act was to hand over Camp Ziouani, home of the Canadian battalion for 32 years, to a battalion from India. Operation DANACA exemplified the Canadian ability to multi-task, he noted, meaning one soldier often did the task normally completed by two or three in other militaries.

“We’re well known in the UN for our capability. We’re small and focused, and we have a very high level of technical expertise. All the nations, including Israel and Syria, were quick to point out they would have preferred us to stay. But these are the types of trades that are in need everywhere, and those skill sets are critical to other Canadian missions.”

Whether, as some have suggested, the mission marks the end of Canada’s peackeeping era, its many lessons have endured. The most important, Mongeon believes, may be the experience it provided soldiers with the UN system.

“The UN is difficult to work within. And the understanding of that system has to be just about perfect to ensure we can provide support. Understanding that system is worth gold. It’s one of the things we tried to impart to the Indian unit that replaced us – the amount of pre-planning and forward thinking you need to do.”

Canada’s ability to work multilaterally is widely recognized and is a critical part of its success, but cultural differences are something “everybody needs to pay more attention to,” Mongeon says. The UNDOF force of over 1,000 includes Polish, Austrian, Japanese and Slovakian contingents, all under the command of Lieutenant-General Bala Nanda Sharma of Nepal. For the past ten years the Canadian battalion included Japanese troops under operational control. “It’s one of the only truly integrated organizations that we have. The Japanese are excellent soldiers and we were able to conduct operations well together.”

Transferring that accumulated knowledge to India was one of the more difficult tasks Mongeon faced. While ensuring UNDOF continued to receive full logistics support, and closing down Canadian operations, he also had to train the Indian contingent, a task further complicated by those very cultural and language differences.

Adopting a train-the-trainer approach, he was able to prepare his replacements “in a progressive way, and when we left they were sufficiently up to speed to take over and train their final group. It was clear they weren’t going to do the job the way Canadians did, they were going to do it the way Indians did it, but I believe I left them with the maximum training that we could provide within the time frame.”

All lessons, he adds, are important. “We continuously learned. There is no one mission that is the same. Even though UN missions are changing, and we’re moving from peacekeeping to peacemaking activities, it does not mean that peacekeeping is dead. Every lesson we can learn is valuable. When the time comes to do peacekeeping again, we’ll have very extensive knowledge.”

When asked to assess the significance of Canada’s contribution, Mongeon pauses only for a moment. “On the professional side, probably our can-do, our ability to multi-task irrespective of the challenges that came our way. On the political side, it would be our ability to work with both sides. We were very impartial in what we did. Both Syria and Israel saw us as a positive element.”

Canada facilitated what he calls ‘apple diplomacy’ – supporting dialogue between Syria and Israel that, among other things, allowed for cross border trading of apples under the auspices of the Red Cross.

“The exchange of Druze students from one side to the other, the movement of families, and marriages are also examples of that aspect. By themselves, they are not earth shattering, but we were able to initiate dialogue, a degree of recognition between two countries that are technically still at war. Dialogue is a critical step to reconciliation.” In the short time he commanded the 200-person battalion, the force raised US$50,000 split equitably between both countries to aid a children’s cancer hospital in Israel and support orphanages and seniors’ homes in Syria.

Though the nature of the mission changed little over the years, the level of threat waxed and waned with the political climate in the Middle East. Tensions remained high in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 war, though there were no direct confrontations between Syria and Israel across the Golan. (Four Canadians died while serving in OP DANACA, and nine CF members were killed on August 9, 1974, when their supply plane to the Golan was shot down on approach to the Damascus airport in Syria.)

In recent years, however, what was considered a relatively stable mission shifted. The death of President Hafez al-Assad upset the political leadership in Syria; Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the subsequent rise of Hezbollah as a political rather than solely military force followed. The ensuing Israeli pull out from the Gaza Strip, tensions about the future of the West Bank, the election of Hamas in Palestine along with a change in leadership in Israel and general unease in the Middle East heightened the state of alert.

“Suddenly, you’ve got a lot of activity, fluidity and vulnerability, and force protection becomes a major issue,“ said Mongeon, who was responsible for Camp Ziouani security for UNDOF. “Syria and Israel have become a lot more volatile, and because they are less stable, it affects Lebanon, and Palestine, which meant greater risks for us. We were very security conscious. The cartoon incident resulted in the burning of two embassies, and for a while we couldn’t go into Damascus. With that much instability, and other influences in the Middle East, it was a much more active mission, and much more important to have the UN in place to serve as a buffer. It did provide a level of peace, which is what the UN is all about.”

OP DANACA may be over, but two Canadian officers remain within the UNDOF HQ, one as the military assistant to the UN Commander and the other as the senior staff officer in UNDOF HQ.

They join CF personnel in: Operation JADE (Canada’s commitment to the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) observing the General Armistice Agreements between Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria); Operation PROTEUS (the international effort to assist the Palestinian Authority in security sector reform following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza); and Operation CALUMET (the contribution to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), the non-UN peacekeeping mission monitoring compliance by Israel and Egypt with the Camp David Accords of 1979).

“With the two officers that we’re leaving, combined with other mission observers, we will continue to try to influence the region,” Mongeon says. “You can’t look at it as just one mission; our influence comes from a conglomeration of all the missions. We hope to have the biggest impact with the least amount of resources.”

Though he commanded the force for just one year, Mongeon takes enormous pride in the work of the operation. “Thirty-two years is a career for most. It should be noted that the challenges were all met extremely well, and the calibre of the CF personnel was superb. But it was hard work, not the walk in the park some have alluded to. It was a significant effort. After you’ve invested so much time and effort, seeing the Canadian flag come down for the last time was very symbolic.”