On the 6th of June, after only two hours of reflection, the Austrian government ordered the withdrawal of its peacekeepers from the Golan Heights, thus ending its 39-year engagement in the area. In an official statement, the 380 UN peacekeepers were pulled out because of the “continuing deterioration of the situation in the area.”
In the months leading up to the withdrawal, UN troops had witnessed increasing spill-over from the conflict in Syria, with mortars hitting the Israeli-controlled parts of the Golan Heights. When Syrian rebels seized control of the strategically important Quneitra border crossing between Syria and Israeli-controlled territory – albeit only for a short period of time – the possibility of the IDF crossing over into Syrian territory to secure Israel’s border became plausible. This is reportedly what led Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann to call for the withdrawal of Austrian troops.
What came as a surprise not only to the Austrian public –the Austrian Army’s Chief of Staff publicly rejected the idea of a withdrawal in an interview just a week beforehand – had long been the subject of discussions behind the scenes. With national elections coming up in September this year, none of the political parties appeared willing to risk the possibility of ‘bad news’ from the Golan during an election campaign. And thus, in a move that stands in stark contrast to their usual behaviour, the two coalition parties, the SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) and the ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) were in solemn agreement about the need to bring the Austrian peacekeepers home.
By withdrawing its troops from the Golan, however, Austria draws a rather abrupt and inglorious line under almost four decades of peacekeeping in the area that was occupied by Israel in the 6-day war in 1967. Established in 1974 to monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights after the 1973 Arab-Israel war, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is tasked with upholding peace in the demilitarized border area between Israel and Syria. In Israel, Austria’s withdrawal is thus seen as a “betrayal” of its commitment under UN Resolution 350, thus further reinforcing Israeli perceptions that, “at the end of the day, it can only rely on itself,” as a senior Israeli official is quoted saying in The Guardian.
Implications for UNDOF and UN Peacekeeping
Aside from Israeli apprehensions and Austria’s tarnished image on the world stage – Austria will most likely not be seen as a reliable international partner in the near future – the move has wider implications not only for UNDOF but for UN peacekeeping missions elsewhere. For UNDOF, a complete Austrian withdrawal means that only 534 Philippine and Indian soldiers will be left behind, effectively decimating the UN contingent.
As a result, the continued existence of the entire mission, to which Austria has contributed the majority of soldiers of late, has been called into question. It is feared that a complete UN withdrawal could attract groups such as Hizbollah or Al-Nusra who are waiting to fill the power vacuum in the demilitarized zone were the UN to leave. Even if the UN continues its mission in the Golan Heights, at a time when fighting in Syria shows no sign of abating, such a reduced UN force will be faced with an ever increasing array of security challenges. Not having reacted appropriately to these worsening conditions is one of the criticisms levelled at the UN. It is alleged that a more robust Chapter VII mandate – rather than the current mandate under Chapter VI – would have enabled UN troops to prevent the Syrian army and rebel groups from advancing to the Israeli border, instead of being a relatively powerless bystander. On the 27th of June, the UN-Security Council reacted to some of these criticisms and adopted a resolution which extends the mandate of UNDOF until the 31st of December and emphasises the need to step up their protection.
In addition to endangering UNDOF, Austria’s withdrawal has undermined the UN’s authority on a wider scale and has sent a worrisome message to those seeking to challenge the presence of UN troops elsewhere: Put bluntly, it might be enough to shoot in the direction of the peacekeepers a couple of times, temporarily take some hostages, and interrupt the supply lines for a little bit, to make UN peacekeepers leave a particular region, or so an op-ed in an Austrian daily argued.
In an attempt to fill the void left by the Austrian peacekeepers, the UN has been trying to find a replacement for its UNDOF forces. After a proposal by Russia to send troops was rejected on the grounds that the 1974 peace accord precludes members of the UN-SC from taking part in UNDOF, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has reportedly asked Sweden to step into the breach. Fiji, which is already replacing Croatian and Japanese troops that also pulled out in recently, has also offered to replace the Austrians.
To prevent a security backlash as a result of a hasty departure, the UN peacekeeping department has asked Austria to delay the full withdrawal of its troops. So far, the Austrian Defence Minister has only agreed to keep around 50 soldiers – key personnel – in the Golan Heights, on a voluntary basis, until the end of July. The majority of the Austrian contingent will return home before the fourth of July.
Amid these negotiations, the fact that the UN troop provider contract precludes states from withdrawing from UN peacekeeping missions without giving three months’ notice (which, for Austria, would be the 6th of September) appears to be studiously ignored.
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