On Wednesday, Austria withdrew the last of its peacekeepers from the 1,000-man United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) monitoring Golan Heights, the contested borderland between Israel and Syria. Austrian troops, which made up nearly one-thid of the force, began pulling out in early June due to security concerns over violent spillover from Syria’s civil war; Croatia and Japan had previously pulled their peacekeepers for similar reasons, and replacement troops from the Philippines may withdraw as well.
The Austrian withdrawal threatens not only the future of the Golan Heights mission but the reputation, perhaps, of U.N. peacekeeping. UNDOF has successfully operated for four decades, maintaining the peace in Golan Heights, and standing as a positive counterpart to U.N. peacekeeping failures in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and Darfur. However, the U.N.’s inability to recruit countries to contribute to the force now that violence has broken out near Golan is leading some to question the relevance of peacekeepers with limited powers –i.e., inability to open fire unless directly attacked — in war zones. (This is not new: the inaction of U.N. peacekeepers in Congo last November when faced with an attack by armed rebels prompted widespread criticism.) In response to UNDOF’s slow disintegration, Israel’s Minister for International Relations commented that this was “proof of why we cannot rest our national security on the presence of international forces.”
A 40-year old ceasefire between Israel and Syria is also at stake. Syria’s 27-month-old war has already bled over its borders with Lebanon and Turkey, and into the Golan Heights. (In March, 21 Filipino peacekeepers were kidnapped by Syrian rebels.) Now, with the Philippines’ involvement yet to be confirmed — and interim Fiji troops lacking experience — the prospect of a security vacuum looms in the border zone. Which magnifies the specter of Israeli involvement. While carefully avoiding direct intervention, Israel has taken a firm stance vis-à-vis Syrian weapon shipments to Hezbollah. (It has attacked three weapon convoys in Syria in as many months.) What’s more, Israel is unlikely to cede a strategic border territory — and main fresh-water source — without a fight. For the Jewish state, the potential threat is two-pronged: if Syria’s President Assad falls, al Qaeda-linked militants could attempt to take over the Heights; if the regime stands, the region may prove a tempting lure for Syria’s backer, Iran, as its westernmost point of operations.
For now, all the major players are in a precarious holding pattern. Israel does not want to enter the conflict, but as it’s shown with recent attacks on Syria — it is willing, and prepared, to defend its interests. (Indeed, Israeli forces have been conducting military exercises along the Golan Heights borders for weeks in preparation for a possible incursion). In the meantime, the U.N. is in a delicate position. Fresh off peacekeeping embarrassments in Congo and Haiti — not to mention its failure to unify world powers around the Syria problem — the body may have to dissolve one of its longest-standing and most successful peacekeeping operations as early as August. (Manila will decide whether to keep or withdraw its troops by August 3rd.)
True, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for UNDOF’s mandate to be extended to January, and to be reinforced by 300 additional troops. However, Ban, and UNDOF, may be better served by borrowing a page from MONUSCO’S playbook: the U.N. “intervention brigade” deployed to the Congo in May boasts the strongest mandate ever granted a peacekeeping force. Especially since, with little sign that Syria’s war is ebbing, the potential for violence against U.N. peacekeepers in Golan Heights — particularly non-Muslim ones — remains high.