Conflict & Justice

Who will keep the peace in the Golan Heights?


A United Nations peacekeeper on the Israeli side of the border between the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights and Syria.


Uriel Sinai

JERUSALEM — The United Nations is scrambling to find troops for its peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights after countries have withdrawn their soldiers to avoid the dangers of the encroaching Syrian conflict.

On Friday, Austria became the latest country to say it would pull out of the 1,000-member UN force, following Japan and Croatia.

The Golan cease-fire zone has been quiet for almost 40 years, but Syria's more than 2-year-old civil war has proven potential for fueling flare-ups in other parts of the region. A security vacuum in the Golan Heights, part of which is occupied by Israel after it seized the territory from Syria in the 1967 war, could expose one of the last buffers between Israel and the Syrian battlefield.

Israel's fear is it would turn the area into a tempting target for both rebels and Syrian forces as they battle inch by inch for control over Syria — right at the edge of Israel's border.

That would oblige Israel to relate to the Syrian border as an area of live-fire — and thus keep civilians away and keep the army on permanent emergency footing. It could raise the specter of Israeli troops being drawn into actively engaging with Syrian warring factions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia is ready to replace Austria's 377 peacekeepers in the Golan Heights.

The UN rejected his offer, citing an agreement between Israel and Syria that bars permanent members of the Security Council from the UN observer mission.

British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the Security Council this month, said that the force should remain in place.

The UN peacekeeping department is asking the other countries in the force, the Philippines and India, if they would increase their troop contributions and was also looking at the possibility of new countries sending troops, Lyall Grant said, according to Reuters.

That could take strong convincing, especially after peacekeeper kidnappings began two months ago.

Noga Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem; Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed reporting.