Out of Golan in 30 Days

Opinion | Matthias Wurz | July / August 2013

On 12 June, the UN in New York announced that soldiers from the Fiji Islands will replace the 380 Austrian troops of the UNDOF peacekeeping mission on Golan Heights, the buffer zone between Israel and Syria. Sending an estimated 500 troops in total, the small nation in the South Pacific, East of Australia, with some 850,000 inhabitants, will send a substantial number of its standing army of 3,500 soldiers.

The Austrian government announced its unilateral decision for a complete withdrawal on 6 June, following increased inner-Syrian fighting in the buffer zone, in clear violation of the 90 days advance notice, stipulated in the agreement. The withdrawal, which has already begun, is to be completed within 30 days.

"We are keeping our end of the bargain," said Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, rebuffing the international criticism. His primary concern was for the safety of the Austrian troops, he said, "though we ask others to accommodate us when it comes to the details."

On the surface, the decision to pull out of a significant political commitment for short-term gains in an election year is hard to defend – although not even the opposition in Parliament has voiced any objection.

There are, however, more immediate political and economic forces at work: In the inner-Syrian power struggle to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Austria appears to be playing the "Russian card" in favour of an authoritarian regime: First, by objecting to the lifting of arms sanctions against the Syrian opposition in May, and now by withdrawing its contingent, under the assumption that the mission will be aborted anyway. With the arrival of the battalions from Fiji, however, Austria suffers international humiliation for questionable strategic geopolitical gains.

But either way, the troops will be home safe.

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