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Is the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights collapsing?

Is the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights collapsing?

The U.N. Security Council struggled this evening to prevent the collapse of a beleaguered mission that has helped maintain peace between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights for nearly 40 years.

The fate of the mission — the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) — was placed in jeopardy this week when the Austrian government announced plans to withdraw the largest national contingent, some 380 Austrian peacekeepers, from the mission, which currently has 913 troops. The Austrian announcement followed a surge of fighting between Syrian regime forces and rebels in the U.N.-monitored demilitarized zone.

"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 and his deputy Michael Spindelegger said Thursday in a joint statement. It continued, noting that "further delay (in withdrawing the troops) is no longer justifiable."

The U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session tonight to review the options for preserving the mission. Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, who is serving as the Security Council president for June, told reporters after the meeting that the United Nations has appealed to Austria to delay their pullout in order to give it the chance to find replacements.

Lyall Grant said the U.N. peacekeeping department has been in urgent discussions with countries that still have troops in the mission — including India, which has nearly 200 blue helmets and the Philippines, which has roughly 350 — to reinforce their contingents. It has also reached out to new countries, including Fiji, which was already planning to send a relatively small contingent of blue helmets, to send more.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that his government is willing to replace the Austrian contingent with a battalion of at least 300 blue helmets. But he noted that any decision would require agreement by the Israeli and Syrian governments, because their 1974 truce bars any of the five permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — from participating in the mission. He also said he asked the U.N. legal department to determine whether a new Security Council resolution may be required.

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian crisis today in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it was unclear whether Putin asked the Israeli leader to approve a Russian peacekeeping role in the Golan.

Council diplomats were puzzled by the Russian offer, noting that Moscow is one of Damascus’s main military suppliers, and that Russian blue helmets would likely be targeted by Syrian rebels. They said they considered it unlikely that Israel or the Security Council’s western powers would approve a Russian role in the Golan Heights. The U.N., meanwhile, made clear that Russia could not participate under existing conditions.

"We appreciate the consideration that the Russian Federation has given to provide troops to the Golan," Martin Nesirky, the U.N.’s chief spokesman told reporters. "However, the Disengagement Agreement and its protocol, which is between Syria and Israel, do not allow for the participation of permanent members of the Security Council in UNDOF."

The U.N. mission first deployed U.N. blue helmets to the Golan in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War. The lightly armed observers were initially mandated to help maintain a cease fire, monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian troops, and finally to oversee an "area of separation" between the rival powers pending a full-fledged peace agreements. The two combatants never made peace, however, the demilitarized zone has remained relatively calm for the past four decades.

But the area has emerged in recent months as a key battlefield between the Syria rebels, who initially sought a safe haven in the area, and the Syrian government, which has moved heavy weapons into the area of separation — a violation of the terms of the 1974 cease-fire agreement — to drive the rebels out. U.N. peacekeepers have been the target of an increasing number of attacks, hijackings, and abductions that have heightened concern among governments about the mission’s viability. Fighting along the Golan Heights has already prompted other U.N. peacekeeping contingents — from Croatia and Japan — to leave the region.

Lyall Grant said the U.N. Security Council is "united in expressing their concern" about the ongoing fighting in the Golan and the proposal to withdraw troops." Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission, even if temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate," he said.

The U.N. peacekeeping department, he said, is "trying to encourage the Austrians to slow down their departure from the theater and dissuade any other current troop contributors from withdrawing troops. I think we are in a serious situation and we need to work together to try to protect the mission from collapse."

Lyall Grant said that the U.N. mandate in the Golan might not be sustainable over the long term. He said the U.N. peacekeeping department would present the Security Council with a set of options before June 26, when the mission’s mandate expires, on whether the mission’s mandate needs to be "strengthened, ended, or changed in the light of current circumstances."

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