July 02, 2013

Peacekeepers in flight

UN’s Golan force collapsing
Last Updated: 11:37 PM, June 9, 2013
Posted: 10:40 PM, June 9, 2013

At 6 a.m. last Thursday, Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger called UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to report his government’s decision to pull out its troops from the Golan Heights, where they’re stationed to monitor the 40-year-old Israeli-Syrian ceasefire.
In other words, the peacekeeping force is falling apart just when it’s truly needed, as the Syrian civil war threatens to cross the border.
The UN Disengagement Observer Force, a k a Undof, has been on the Golan since 1974. Both Israel and Syria wanted to keep the front quiet, so Undof soldiers just hiked the Golan’s haunting terrains and enjoyed periodic trips to Tel Aviv, with its lively night life.
One last look? A UN soldier looks toward Syria from an observation point in the Golan Heights on Friday, with the UN peacekeeper force on the edge of collapse.
One last look? A UN soldier looks toward Syria from an observation point in the Golan Heights on Friday, with the UN peacekeeper force on the edge of collapse.
Now, with Undof suddenly at the edge of the Mideast’s hottest war, the countries that provide its troops are running for the exits. A few volunteers have offered to fill the void — but their motives seem suspect.
At its peak, Undof had 1,250 troops. By last month it was down to 911, after small Japanese and Croatian forces left. Now Austria is pulling out its 377 troops — more than a third of the force.
The Philippines, the No. 2 Undof troop contributor, may also soon pull its 341 troops. Filipino observers have been kidnapped repeatedly in recent months, held by Syrian gangs as bargaining chips before being released.
A collapse of Undof could force the Israeli army to move into the Golan’s separation zone, perhaps widening the deadly Syrian war.
Austria made its final decision Thursday, after Syrian rebels captured Quneitra, the largest town on the Syrian side of the Golan, and seized the UN-controlled border crossing there, injuring two UN observers.
Fears immediately grew that the volatile ragtag we call “the rebels” might soon attack Israel, ending the 40-year calm on the Undof front.
Yes, later in the day the Syrian government’s army recaptured Quneitra, but for Vienna enough was enough.
Then, on Friday, Ban got another call: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov generously offered to send troops to replace the Austrians. Well, gee, thanks.
Moscow’s offer is hard to swallow for Westerners, who think there’s alreadytoo muchRussian presence in the Syrian conflict. An influx of its troops at a strategic spot might seal victory for Moscow’s client, the butchering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In fact, the 1974 ceasefire accord explicitly excluded the five top UN powers from participatinge in Undof. (Henry Kissinger, who orchestrated the deal after Syria lost its war against Israel, was determined to keep the Soviets out.)
So no Russians, at least for now. Other offers on the table (including from one country that’s considered a human-rights violator) are likely to be rejected too.
Instead, UN officials (and their Washington counterparts) are scrambling to find credible countries to volunteer troops for a potential war zone. But, listening to President Obama’s endless talking points about all the dangers and pitfalls of touching the Syrian mess, what sane country would go near Syria now?
This is all too familiar for Israelis. In 1967, Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser told a UN force to leave Gaza so he could launch a war. The United Nations dutifully obeyed, and the Six-Day War ensued.
More recently, after Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005, European observers were stationed at border crossings to monitor withdrawal agreements. A year later, though, Hamas terrorists took Gaza over, and the European Union pulled its observers out for good, deeming the mission too dangerous.
And after two major Israeli wars in Lebanon, a UN force there has proved useless in its avowed goal of disarming Hezbollah — which now has three times more heavy weapons than it did before Israel destroyed most of its arm caches in 2006.
The whole world constantly lectures Israel about peace, often advising it to rely on internationally-backed security assurances. But when such assurances are tested, they too often disappear into thin air.
Here at home, questions over UN peacekeeping should also come up as the Senate deliberates over Samantha Power, President Obama’s nominee to represent the United States at the United Nations. (Or is it the other way ’round?)
We pay 28 percent of the UN's peacekeeping budget of over $73 billion a year — but UN advocates often argue that we get a handsome return on that “investment”: After all, it’s cheaper than sending US troops everywhere as world cops.
But as the Golan crisis demonstrates, you get what you pay for.
Twitter: @bennyavni

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