Austria has said it would pull out of the UN Force on the Golan Heights. The departure of the Austrians, who make up about 380 of the 1,000-member United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), is a heavy blow to the UN peace efforts in the region. The contingent has been caught up in the spillover of fighting between belligerents in Syria with its personnel being the target of hostage takings by rebels. «Austria has been a backbone of the mission, and their withdrawal will impact the mission's operational capacity», said U.N. spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero.
On June 6 Vladimir Putin offered to send Russian troops to act as peacekeepers in the Golan Heights to save the pillar the regional stability is based on. «But this will happen, of course, only if the regional powers show interest, and if the U.N. secretary general asks us to do so», Putin said at a meeting with Russian officers. The United Nations has generally welcomed the offer. «The UN welcomes any contribution by the world community to peacemaking efforts in the Golan Heights, and the UNDOF is very important for the maintenance of peace in the region», responded UN spokesman Farhan Haq. Russian parliament members have supported the President’s move. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vladimir Churkin said the number of troops to be sent on a mission is around 300, more or less equal to the strength of outgoing Austrian force (377). The implementation requires the approval of UNSC, Israel and Syria. U.N. legal experts would also examine whether the Council might have to adopt a resolution if the Russian offer moves forward. Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the current Security Council president, said «it's good» that Russia made the offer, which was welcomed by some council members. The peacekeeping department «will need to take that offer alongside offers from other potential troop contributors».
UN peacekeeping operations are carried out in order to prevent or eliminate threats to peace and security through joint enforcement actions, if the measures of economic and political nature were inadequate and inefficient. Decisions regarding establishment, composition, use and financing of the peacekeeping forces are taken by the UN Security Council. Strategic control of such forces is realized by the Military Staff Committee.
UNDOF was created after the 1973 October War to supervise implementation of the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement in the Golan. The Force was established by United Nations Security Council Resolution 350 on 31 May 1974 to implement Resolution 338 (1973), which called for an immediate ceasefire and implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 (1967), the cornerstone for what it calls «a just and lasting peace» based on «secure and recognized boundaries».
The infrastructure includes two base camps, 44 permanently manned positions and 11 observation posts. The headquarters are located at Camp Faouar. The Austrian battalion was deployed in the north, while the Filipino battalion is deployed in the south with its base camp in Camp Ziouani. Major General Iqbal Singh Singha of India took over as Head of Mission and Force Commander on 13 August 2012. The activities of the UNDOF include: overall supervision, monitoring of Syrian and Israeli military presence, day and night patrols, intervention in cases of entry, by-weekly inspections of 500 Israeli and Syrian military locations in the areas of limitation on each side, assistance to the International Committee of the Red Cross, identifying and marking of minefields. There are several towns and villages within and bordering the zone, including the ruins of Quneitra. Land mines are a danger to the UNDOF personnel and the civilian population. The buffer zone is about 80 km long, and between 0.5 to 10 km wide, forming an area of 235 km². The zone straddles the Purple Line, separating the Golan Heights and Syria. The mission had had a 40 year long story of success till the Syria’s revolt erupted.
Situation in deployment area
The situation on Syria's side of the border is aggravating; Rebel combat units are fighting the government forces for dominance of the area between the UNDOF line and the major regime garrisons southwest of Damascus. Clashes are frequent as the two sides contest control of key points. There is a growing chance that UN personnel will deliberately or inadvertently be drawn into the fighting. Further complicating matters, the Syrian rebels have become increasingly resentful toward the UN recently as the government retains the country's seat in the General Assembly, and the UN still deals with his President Assad as the country's sovereign representative. Moreover, the peacekeepers are also seen as enforcing an unpopular ceasefire with Israel viewed by many rebels as the enemy. Israel is greatly concerned about the jihadist presence and the bleak outlook for UNDOF. Since its deployment in 1974, UNDOF has preserved a status quo. UNDOF's dissolution or incapacitation would end that stability erasing the eighty-kilometer buffer zone and turning the area into a Lebanon-style hot spot. To counter that threat, Israel military is erecting a new, sophisticated border fence in the Golan. It has also deployed additional seasoned troops and sophisticated weapons and intelligence gathering equipment along the frontier while developing contingency plans in the event of cross-border attacks. Israel has to prevent the weapons coming from Syria getting into wrong hands, increasing the chance for reprisal in the Golan Heights area. There is also a danger coming from chemical weapons use affecting peacekeepers and Israelis alike.
In a nutshell, UNDOF will face increasing difficulty in carrying out its Golan observation mission. In any event, the long-quiet Israel-Syria border could easily revert to a battlefield. With spillover already impacting Lebanon and Jordan, it is extremely important UNDOF remains in place. Appearing to go against the wind, the Russia’s decision to land a hand to the UN in a pinch makes its peacekeepers the main buffer to prevent the spark lighting a big fire. The matter is with Austria gone, India, and the Philippines are already discussing the future of their deployments. It’s just a matter of time. It’s a tall order for the UN to find contributors ready to step in, especially the ones well-trained and dry behind the ears in the trade not easy to learn.
Russia – seasoned peacekeeper
Russian peacekeepers in the area would enhance the country’s international standing and the authority of its armed forces, and have a positive impact on the situation in the region as a whole, said Valery Shnyankin, deputy head of the international relations committee at the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, said on the heels of President Putin’s statement. Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the State Duma Defense Committee, said Russian peacekeepers in the Golan Heights would be the best possible deal for both Syria and Israel, since «there is a significant level of trust in Russia on both sides there», compared with peacekeepers from any other country, including the United States.
Russia has vast experience of peacekeeping in many parts of the world, including: South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdniestria, Tajikistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Metohija, Angola, Chad, Sierra Leone, Sudan. Mali mission is not excluded. The military also boasts participation in observer missions in the Middle East, Western Sahara, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sudan. So the Russian military has an advantage of having gone through thick and thin to know the first thing about joint planning, interoperability and applying the rules of engagement, the key factors for success of any multinational peacekeeping force.
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The peacekeeping story is a proof Russia plays by the rules. The country has no reputation of international law abuser and can be trusted. Going back to my own military past, the days of peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia were the time when NATO and Russia rubbed shoulders being in the same boat. The parties were turning away from the years of cold war hostilities to joining together in preventing bloodshed in former Yugoslavia. Great level of interoperability was achieved and lot of things mutually learned. Then NATO egregiously violated the international law and started Serbia’s bombing followed by snapping off Kosovo, a part of Serbia, and converting into an illegal entity notorious for being a criminal entity heavily involved in drug trafficking and disseminating radical ideology to spur terrorist activities in Europe and elsewhere. The officers from NATO countries used to tell me privately those days that they never wanted it to happen but followed the orders of political brass. Other violations of international law followed, like the recent going far beyond the UN resolution in Libya. Can NATO peacekeepers be trusted anymore? Neither do the Russian peacekeepers have a reputation of someone leaving the mission as soon as there are first signs the fray may start. What is important – Russia has good relations with Israel, Syria and a moderate part of Syrian opposition, which has visited Moscow to hold talks with Russian leadership. With all contributors having withdrawn or on the verge of taking a similar decision, Russian peacekeepers appear be the only hope for peace in the Golan Heights area.