Syrian rebels temporarily seized control of the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria on June 6, spurring Austria to withdraw all of its 380 peacekeepers stationed in the Golan Heights. Vienna attributed its decision to vacate the buffer zone, where international forces have been stationed since the 1974 armistice, to the escalating regional violence. Last Thursday’s rebel attack sent the roughly 1,000 UN forces fleeing for their bunkers and injured two peacekeeping troops before the Syrian army recaptured the area.
The four-week withdrawal of Austrian forces will leave the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) with less than half the troops it possessed a year ago. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann supported the controversial decision, saying, “We never could have and would never have wanted to take on a military mission to mediate or intervene between the opposition rebels and governmental troops.” Japan and Croatia also withdrew their presence as the fighting intensified in recent months, further diminishing the precarious security buffer.
A UN peacekeeper from the UNDOF force looks through binoculars as he guards on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and the Golan Heights, Friday, March 8, 2013. (Photo: AP)
Following the rebel forces’ abduction of four Filipino peacekeepers patrolling the border in May, the Quneitra attack has compelled the UN to request additional troop contributions from the Philippines and India and to look to other countries for reinforcements. However, the UN rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to “replace the leaving Austrian contingent” on the grounds that the 1974 armistice prohibited permanent UN Security Council members from supplying peacekeepers. Moscow’s continuing support for the Assad regime, through weapons shipments justified as existing contracts, such as the S-300 surface-to-air missiles and sale of MiG-29 fighter jets, cast further doubts on Russia’s ability to be a force for stability.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed Israel’s sentiments over the mounting tension along the border. “The crumbling of the UN force on the Golan Heights underscores the fact that Israel cannot depend on international forces for its security,” he said at a June 9 cabinet meeting. He insisted such forces “cannot be the basic foundation of Israel’s security.” Israel condemned the Austrian withdrawal, claiming it undermined the international organization’s authority in the Syrian conflict and damaged the Security Council’s ability to help facilitate future Israeli-Palestinian resolutions.