Austria may pull its soldiers from the UNDOF peacekeeping force on the Golan
Heights if the European Union fails to renew its arms embargo against Syria,
Austrian Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told The
Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
If the embargo is lifted at the end of next
month, “it would be difficult in that moment to maintain the security [of the
Austrian soldiers],” he said.
Spindelegger arrived in Israel earlier in
the day for a 24-hour visit during which he will travel to the Golan Heights,
examine the terrain and meet with Austrian soldiers and their commander, so he
can personally assess the situation.
He also wants to stress to Israeli
leaders the danger to Syria and the mission’s future, if the arms embargo is
Austria is one of only three nations, along with India and the
Philippines, that remain in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force; it
recently lost three of its members – Croatia, Canada and Japan.
fewer than 1,000 peacekeeping personnel left, and if Austria withdraws its 377
soldiers, the drop will severely hamper the mission’s effectiveness. Austria
furnishes the largest remaining contingent.
“We are the main contributor
of UNDOF,” Spindelegger said. “Next year we celebrate 40 years of being on the
“The problem is that more and more it is not possible to
do this mission,” he said.
Increasingly, he said, violence spills into
the security zone that separates Israel and Syria.
But if the embargo is
lifted and European countries export arms to the Syrian opposition, Austria will
no longer appear neutral to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
absence of such neutrality would increase the danger to the extent that it may
not be possible to remain, he said.
“If Syrian opposition could have more
weapons from the European side, than we are really on one side, and it would be
a hard job just to be present, and this would be the moment where we would think
to pull out,” Spindelegger said.
Neutrality is such a critical component,
he said, that Croatia pulled out, fearing for its troops’ safety, after a rumor
surfaced that Croatia had delivered weapons to opposition forces, Spindelegger
He explained the situation to President Shimon Peres and to Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in separate meetings on Thursday.
agreed with him that no more arms should flow to Syria.
It could set off
a very dangerous arms race, he warned.
“Austria thinks that we do not
need more weapons in Syria, because [if] the one side gets more weapons, the
other side will get more weapons. This kind of competition is not needed in
Syria,” he said.
Spindelegger said he was particularly concerned there
were a number of EU countries such as France and the United Kingdom that wanted
the embargo lifted, so they could send arms to the opposition forces.
a unanimous position cannot be reached to renew the embargo, it will expire,
“If we cannot find unanimity in our decision just to
prolong the arms embargo, countries are free just to deliver arms to Syrian
opposition, and some of them have announced that they want to do that like
France and the UK,” he said.
Due to the civil war in Syria, Austria must
now send its soldiers and supplies through Israel to the Golan Heights, rather
than through Damascus.
While Spindelegger spoke with Israeli officials
about the Iranian nuclear threat and the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace
process, Syria was the topic that most concerned him.
At the start of his
meeting with Spindelegger, Netanyahu said that Syria had a stockpile of some of
the world’s most dangerous weapons.
“We cannot allow them to fall into
the world’s most dangerous hands – there are Hezbollah, al-Qaida and other
terrorist groups,” he said.
The prime minister said he knew that Austria
shared his concern and that he wanted to work with it to prevent terrorists from
obtaining those weapons.
International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz
and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin also attended the meeting with
After traveling to the Golan Heights on Friday, Spindelegger
plans to head to Lebanon before returning to Austria on Saturday.