Austria’s decision to pull out its troops from the United Nations peacekeeping force at the Golan Heights has opened up the possibility of drawing Israel into the Syrian conflict, which has already become deeply internationalised.
Austria is withdrawing 380 peacekeepers—more than one-third of the total strength of the 1000 strong UN force—leaving a gaping hole in the international security cover that is required to keep out the seepage of the Syrian conflict into Israel. Pro-Israel lobby groups in the United States are already claiming that the Austrian withdrawal is posing an “existential threat” to Israel, as it could weaken vigilance around Quneitra, the only border crossing that exists between Syria and Israel. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been deployed since 1974 to monitor the 72 km-long "area of separation" between Syrian and Israeli forces, running from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan.
Russia—a key ally of Syria—has quickly jumped in with an offer to replace the departing Austrians, demonstrating the tussle among Syria’s friends and detractors to jockey for positions of advantage in the Syrian conflict. But on Friday, the United Nations said that Moscow’s offer could not be accepted because of Russia’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said that “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".
Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin countered the argument by saying that cold war era stipulation was outdated. "We believe that times have changed," observed the Russian envoy. He added: "The document was signed 39 years ago at the height of (the) Cold War and the whole context of the (Arab-Israeli) war in 1973".
The heated debate over UN deployments follows the takeover of the strategic town of Quseir by a combination of Syrian troops and Hizbollah—an event that seemed to mark the ascendancy of government forces over foreign backed armed opposition during the over two-year old conflict. The reassertion of control over Quseir means that the government can now block the opposition supply routes from Lebanon, re-open the road from capital Damascus to ports on the Mediterranean coast, and further isolate its foes in central Syria.
Sections of the Arab media have attributed the government’s triumph in Quseir to under-hand intrigues, rather than tactical brilliance on the battlefield. The Saudi-owned Elaph website attributed the takeover of the town to a “secret agreement” between George Sabra, the acting head of the Syrian National Coalition and Hizbollah. In its editorial, the London based Palestinian daily, Al Quds Al Arabi said the setback in Qusair “was not a defeat for the armed Syrian opposition with all its factions, as much as it was for the Arab and Western states supporting it”. On the contrary, the pro-Hizbollah Al-Akhbar daily from Lebanon opines that the Syrian victory in Quseir has opened the door for the re-establishment of governmental authority in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.