On June 6, when the Syrian army retook the Quneitra crossing in the Golan Heights from anti-government rebels, it crossed into the demilitarized zone that has separated Syrian and Israeli forces since 1974. When that happened, Israel threatened to strike Syrian tanks, according to a leaked U.N. document. In response, Syria promised to fire solely on the rebels, and sent a message to that effect to Israel through the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan, or UNDOF.
Thus, as things played out in the heat of live battle, the U.N. “peacekeepers” provided a mechanism that kept a localized fight within the Syrian civil war from turning into an international conflict. Unfortunately, the fighting within the demilitarized zone led Austria to remove its 300-member contingent of peacekeepers, a full one-third of the U.N. force, also composed of troops from the Philippines and India.
The Quneitra incident illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of peacekeeping forces. They are effective when two parties to the conflict observe their agreements and live in peace. And they tend to fail when the going gets a little rougher. Thus, notwithstanding some verbal and other hostilities between Israel and Syria over the past four decades, things were quiet in the Golan, because Israel and Syria chose to keep things quiet. Similarly, until the Mubarak government was toppled, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai was almost forgotten amid the high level of security cooperation between former belligerents Israel and Egypt.
At the same time, Lebanon’s lack of strong central control explains why the UNIFIL force is ineffective there.
Amid the heated rhetoric following the recent Golan incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet, “The crumbling of the U.N. force on the Golan Heights underscores the fact that Israel cannot depend on international forces for its security.” This is, of course, true. But, it is also true that Israel never depended on UNDOF for its security. Rather, peacekeepers are considered the “icing on the cake,” much like an extra layer of international buy-in to an already strong agreement between the principal parties. In that context, peacekeepers are not meant to be proactive, and are certainly not meant to fight against armies or militias.
When we last wrote on this subject in April, we voiced concern that the disbanding of UNDOF would leave a vacuum that could increase the chances of Israel being drawn into the Syrian conflict. We still believe that the security situation in the Golan is enhanced by the presence of international observers. Russian President Vladimir Putin couldn’t have been serious when he suggested sending in Russian troops to replace the Austrians on UNDOF, since permanent members of the Security Council are barred from serving on the peacekeeping force. But the international community needs to find appropriate replacement troops for UNDOF, and to continue to look for solutions to the wider conflict in Syria.