Golan Heights Crisis: Austrian Peacekeepers Pull Out, Potentially Re-Igniting Israeli-Syrian Conflict


A recent pullout of Austrian forces from the UN mission in the Syrian-Israeli border territory of the Golan Heights represents the latest dormant regional dispute to be reignited without plausible resolution. While the situation is not the first border crisis of the ongoing conflict, Austria's troop extraction is forcing Israel to consider the conflict on a wider scope.

On June 6, officials in Austria announced that the Austrian forces involved with the UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone) would be pulled out for their personal safety due to spillover of fighting. In total, the Austrian personnel made up 378 of the 1,000 UN peacekeepers on the border area between Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syria.

The status of the Golan Heights, an Israeli-occupied territory captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, centers on the dispute of whether Israel occupies the territories legally under the lens of international law. Regardless of legality, UNDOF has stabilized the border through years of unsuccessful negotiations between Israel and Syria.

The stability of that border is in question with the increased spillover of fighting from within Syria. The civil war has claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 Syrians and displaced 4 million more. Many of those now reside in camps in neighboring Turkey. The border in Golan Heights was disrupted recently by fighting between rebels and Assad's forces at the Quineitra border crossing; rebels were able to briefly capture the crossing station, resulting in the nearby UNDOF forces being forced to take cover. Two Austrian members were injured in the battle, prompting the decree from Vienna.

The now public policy change by Austria has forced the UN to readdress the issue and reassess the stability of the territory. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reported that the entire mission was jeopardized by the withdrawal of the Austrian forces, which have a deadline of June 24. The troops could be replaced if other member states choose to pitch in. The only offer has been from Russia, which would be illegal by UN policy.

What may be harder than replacing the troops is replacing the current strategy. Israel has occupied the territory for over 40 years with little intent to give it up.  Additionally, the civil war has much more of an influence on the statesmanship of the region than most states want to admit to. If the territory was to ever return to Syria, through agreement or by force, it could become the westernmost point for Assad ally Iran to operate from. The option of making the Golan Heights an autonomous state could create a buffer, but Israel likely will not want to lose territorial and security gains.

Israel is in a tricky spot. The possibility of the Obama administration arming the Syrian rebels will inevitably bring more actors into the mix of the regional conflict that started off as a civil war. Israel can hope for more UNDOF forces and a stop in incidents, but hope isn't policy. All actors need to be prepared for the worst.