A United Nations mission that has patrolled a zone of separation between Israel and Syria for four decades is at risk of becoming the latest casualty in the grinding bloodbath between Syrian President Bashar Assad's military and the rebels fighting to oust him.
Fighting between Syrian government troops and opposition forces spread into the U.N.-monitored Golan Heights in recent days, with both sides claiming Thursday to have captured a rarely used border checkpoint at Quneitra, Syria’s sole crossing into the Israeli-held territory.
The running battle injured two U.N. peacekeepers from the Philippines and prompted Austria, the biggest troop-contributor to the 900-strong U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, to announce that it is pulling out all 380 of its soldiers.
"Freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists. The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said in announcing the impending withdrawal.
Philippines officials have also said they are considering recalling their 300 troops after two instances in recent months in which rebels took Philippine peacekeepers captive. Japan and Croatia earlier withdrew their forces from the Golan mission, citing security concerns, and replacement troops haven’t been offered by other member nations.
"Austria has been a backbone of the mission, and their withdrawal will affect the mission’s operational capacity,” said U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky. “We are in discussions with them about the timing of the withdrawal and with other troop-contributing countries to provide replacement troops.”
But in the midst of fighting that increasingly ignores international borders and existing cease-fires, concerns are mounting in the world body’s peacekeeping department that member nations are no longer willing to send troops for a mission that is often confined to barracks by the persistent danger of the war raging around it.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on all parties to the 26-month-old Syrian civil war to respect the U.N. mission and the safety and security of the peacekeepers. Any military activity in the separation zone “has the potential to escalate tensions between Israel and Syria and to jeopardize the long-held cease-fire between the two countries,” Ban said.
The Israel Defense Forces have already joined the Syrian conflict, having conducted airstrikes on weapons convoys moving through Syria that the Israelis believed to be destined for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Israel expressed its regret at the Austrian withdrawal from the Golan and said it hoped that it wouldn’t lead to “further escalation.”
Israel has warned Syria and the Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas that it will swiftly retaliate if Israeli troops come under fire.
Quneitra was within the territory captured by Israel during the 1967 war but was retaken by Syria in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Israel annexed the strategic heights in 1981, but its territorial claim isn’t internationally recognized. The United Nations mission has been patrolling the disputed region since a 1974 cease-fire.
Ban’s appeal to let the Golan peacekeepers do their job is likely to fall on deaf ears, as have U.N. calls throughout the Syrian conflict for the combatants to adhere to existing cease-fires and submit to peace talks to put an end to a war that has taken at least 80,000 lives.
The battle Thursday over the Golan checkpoint appeared to be an attempt by the rebels to regain some momentum after having been routed from the strategic town of Qusair by Assad’s forces a day earlier. By recapturing Qusair, the government has secured supply lines and access to the Mediterranean coast that is home to Assad’s Shiite-aligned Alawite sect and allied Russia’s naval port at Tartus.
The conquest of Qusair is the latest in a spate of Syrian government advances on the battlefield that are likely to boost Assad’s confidence that his forces will ultimately prevail over the scattered and poorly armed rebels. And that prospect may be serving as a disincentive for the government to take part in peace talks being pushed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
Though diplomats from both countries conceded Thursday that prospects for getting the two sides together this month for negotiations in Geneva were virtually nil, Lavrov warned European leaders against stepping up military aid to the rebels in response to reports that Assad’s government had used chemical weapons.
"I do not rule out that somebody wants to use [the chemical weapons allegations] to state that a red line has been crossed and a foreign intervention is necessary," Lavrov said.
The Russian government, though, also cautioned Assad against counting on a battlefield victory to end the war.
"The undoubted military success of the government forces should not, in our opinion, be used by anyone to create the illusion about the possibility of solving all the problems faced by Syria by force," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
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