UNITED NATIONS/MOSCOW - The United Nations on Friday said it could not accept Russia's offer to replace peacekeepers from Austria in the Golan Heights because an agreement between Israel and Syria bars permanent members of the Security Council from the UN observer mission.
The United Nations expressed appreciation for the Russian offer, made on Friday by President Vladimir Putin after Austria said it would recall its troops from a UN monitoring force due to worsening fighting in Syria.
Austria, whose peacekeepers account for about 380 of the 1,000-member UN force observing a four-decade-old ceasefire between Syria and Israel, said it would pull out after intense clashes between Syrian government forces and rebels on the border.
Russia is a longtime ally and arms supplier to Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces are fighting rebels trying to overthrow him in a civil war.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said it was impossible at the moment for the world body to accept the offer from Russia, which along with the United States, Britain, France and China is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the 15-nation Security Council.
"We appreciate the consideration that the Russian Federation has given to provide troops to the Golan," he told reporters.
"However, 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," Nesirky added, referring to the peacekeeping contingent known as the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.
Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said his country was well aware of that limitation in a document signed four decades ago, which is why Putin said that it would depend on whether countries in the region - namely Syria and Israel - and the United Nations wanted Russian troops there.
"We believe that times have changed," Churkin told reporters, adding that it was theoretically possible to amend the protocol that bars permanent council members from UNDOF.
"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," he said. "Now the context is completely different and UNDOF seems to be in dire straits. So we are offering essentially to rescue UNDOF."
The departure of the Austrians is the latest blow to the monitoring force. In addition to the increased fighting in its zone of operation, there have been several recent incidents in which Syrian rebel forces detained UNDOF monitors
Since 1974, UNDOF has had the task of monitoring the "area of separation" between Syrian and Israeli forces, a narrow strip of land running 45 miles (72 km) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan. The force has helped keep the area relatively stable, UN diplomats say.
Russia has been trying along with Western powers to bring the warring sides in Syria together in talks on a solution to a conflict that has lasted more than two years. A planned Geneva peace conference has been delayed until July at least.
The UN Security Council was meeting to discuss the Austrian withdrawal after anti-Assad rebels briefly seized the crossing between Israel and Syria this week, sending UN staff scurrying to bunkers before Syrian soldiers managed to push the rebels back.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters ahead of the closed-door council session on UNDOF that he was meeting with troop-contributing countries to find a member state willing to offer monitors to replace the departing Austrians.