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United Nations

Golan Heights peacekeeping mission in trouble

The UN Security Council's peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights is up for renewal, but the escalation of the conflict in Syria has plunged it into crisis. Does the UN mandate need strengthening?

For many years, soldiers regarded deployment with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) as a well-paid, quiet job. Since 1974 the UN observer force has been monitoring the ceasefire between Israel and Syria along a 70 kilometer-long (44 miles) corridor.

Until recently, the area was usually calm. Now, though, the Syrian civil war is starting to spill over into the border region. Both Syrian troops and opposition fighters have repeatedly crossed into the buffer zone, and there have been several exchanges of fire with Israel.

After two incidents in March and May of this year in which Filipino peacekeepers were abducted and held for several days by Syrian rebels, Austria recently decided that the situation in the Golan Heights had become too dangerous, and announced that it would be withdrawing its observers. Some of the Austrian contingent have already left.

Israeli soldiers walk near tanks close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria on the Israeli occupied Golan Heights May 6, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)

The border has mostly been quiet since 1974, but Israel and Syria recently exchanged fire

Shaky mandate

Given the current situation in Syria, is the UN mandate still strong enough for the mission to fulfil its function? The Austrians had always been a mainstay of UNDOF, and their sudden withdrawal has sparked intense discussion of this question just before the mandate comes up for renewal on 26 June.

Heinz Gärtner, professor at the Austrian Institute for International Policy in Vienna, is unequivocal in his response. No, he says, the mandate is not strong enough. He believes it was a mistake on the part of the international community not to put it on a firmer footing long ago. "It has to be converted into a mandate that also allows for a certain amount of intervention in hostilities," he says.

Gärtner believes that this is urgently necessary so that the soldiers can repel the Syrian army if it crosses the border. "This is the only way to maintain the demilitarized zone," he says. At present, the peacekeepers are only there as observers, and only have permission to defend themselves in an emergency.

No one actually doubts that the mission itself is an important one - perhaps more important now than ever. The UN has already confirmed that it wants to increase the number of peacekeepers in the Golan from 900 to 1250 soldiers.

Filipino United Nations peacekeepers drive towrads the Kuneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights March 9, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Filipino peacekeepers have twice been abducted by Syrian rebels

Who will replace the Austrians?

But UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon now has the problem of trying to replace the 380 Austrian soldiers at short notice. Fiji has offered to fill in for the Austrians: Its soldiers are already taking over from Croatia, Japan and Canada, who withdrew their troops in the spring.

For less well-off nations, peacekeeping missions are an attractive prospect. Soldiers are better-paid on these foreign missions than they are at home, and the state's involvement makes it look good on the international stage. It's no coincidence that the majority of peacekeepers come from Asian countries like the Philippines, India, Bangladesh or Pakistan.

UN expert Andreas Zumach says the United Nations are having difficulty finding replacements to make up the UNDOF mission. Negotiations with Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark have so far proved unsuccessful, meaning that, unless someone steps in, there will no longer be any European representation at all in the Golan Heights.

"That's why the UN General Secretary is having to fall back on offers like that of Fiji, and other problematic countries, who may not even have the necessary peacekeeping experience," says Zumach. In his opinion it would have made more sense for the European countries to join forces in lobbying the UN to strengthen the mandate.

Instead, he says, there is general astonishment at the United Nations over the apparent lack of coordination between the European states. "Behind closed doors, the impression people have is that there's simply no such thing as a common European foreign policy - let alone a common security policy," says Andreas Zumach. "These days, people just laugh at the idea."

United Nations (UN) Austrian peacekeepers cross the Israeli army crossing of Quneitra between Syria to the Israeli annexed Golan Heights on June 12, 2013. (Photo MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

There may soon be no European troops at all in the UNDOF mission

The UN's dilemma

It's a schizophrenic situation, the UN expert says: Everyone in New York and elsewhere knows that the situation will change dramatically when the Assad regime is no longer in power. "It's possible that parts of Syria could become an area of operation for al-Qaeda terrorist groups," says Zumach. "Everyone knows that - but no one says it publicly."

If they did, he explains, the only possible course would be to extend and strengthen the UN mandate. Then, when the mandate was put before the UN Security Council, Russia would probably veto it. This, however, would constitute an indirect admission that the Assad regime might, at some point, fall - something Russia is not prepared to admit unless it has no other option.

Political scientist Heinz Gärtner predicts that a similar crisis is brewing in the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon. There, too, the UN peacekeepers are only present as observers. If the situation were to escalate, the same thing could happen in Lebanon, he says: "Countries that are part of the mission would be completely within their rights to say: 'We can't fulfil the mandate like this, so we're going to withdraw.'"

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