Austrian FM: We may pull Golan peacekeepers

Visiting FM Spindelegger tells 'Post' that if EU lifts Syria arms embargo, Austrian UN peacekeepers will be endangered.

UN peacekeepers blue helmets (photo credit: Ali Hashisho / Reuters)
UN peacekeepers blue helmets
(photo credit: Ali Hashisho / Reuters)
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 lifted.
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.
There are 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 Golan Heights.
“The problem is that more and more it is not possible to do this mission,” he said.
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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.
The 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 said.
He explained the situation to President Shimon Peres and to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in separate meetings on Thursday.
Israel 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.
If a unanimous position cannot be reached to renew the embargo, it will expire, Spindelegger.
“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 Netanyahu.
After traveling to the Golan Heights on Friday, Spindelegger plans to head to Lebanon before returning to Austria on Saturday.