Fighting between Syrian government troops and opposition forces spread into the U.N.-monitored Golan Heights in recent days, with both sides claiming Thursday to have captured a rarely used border checkpoint at Quneitra, Syria’s sole crossing into the Israeli-held territory.
The running battle injured two U.N. peacekeepers from the
"Freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists. The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level," Austrian Chancellor
Philippines officials have also said they are considering recalling their 300 troops after two instances in recent months in which rebels took Philippine peacekeepers captive. Japan and Croatia earlier withdrew their forces from the Golan mission, citing security concerns, and replacement troops haven't been offered by other member nations.
"Austria has been a backbone of the mission, and their withdrawal will affect the mission's operational capacity," said U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky. "We are in discussions with them about the timing of the withdrawal and with other troop-contributing countries to provide replacement troops."
But in the midst of fighting that increasingly ignores international borders and existing cease-fires, concerns are mounting in the world body's peacekeeping department that member nations are no longer willing to send troops for a mission that is often confined to barracks by the persistent danger of the war raging around it.
Israel has warned Syria and the Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas that it will swiftly retaliate if Israeli troops come under fire.
Quneitra was within the territory captured by Israel during the 1967 war but was retaken by Syria in the
Ban's appeal to let the Golan peacekeepers do their job is likely to fall on deaf ears, as have U.N. calls throughout the Syrian conflict for the combatants to adhere to existing cease-fires and submit to peace talks to put an end to a war that has taken at least 80,000 lives.
The battle Thursday over the Golan checkpoint appeared to be an attempt by the rebels to regain some momentum after having been routed from the strategic town of Qusair by Assad’s forces a day earlier. By recapturing Qusair, the government has secured supply lines and access to the Mediterranean coast that is home to Assad’s Shiite-aligned Alawite sect and allied
The conquest of Qusair is the latest in a spate of Syrian government advances on the battlefield that are likely to boost Assad’s confidence that his forces will ultimately prevail over the scattered and poorly armed rebels. And that prospect may be serving as a disincentive for the government to take part in peace talks being pushed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State
Though diplomats from both countries conceded Thursday that prospects for getting the two sides together this month for negotiations in Geneva were virtually nil, Lavrov warned European leaders against stepping up military aid to the rebels in response to reports that Assad's government had used chemical weapons.
"I do not rule out that somebody wants to use [the chemical weapons allegations] to state that a red line has been crossed and a foreign intervention is necessary," Lavrov said.
The Russian government, though, also cautioned Assad against counting on a battlefield victory to end the war.
"The undoubted military success of the government forces should not, in our opinion, be used by anyone to create the illusion about the possibility of solving all the problems faced by Syria by force," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.