After Weapons Embargo Lifted, Austria Reconsiders Golan Mission

Austria’s foreign minister is afraid that its peacekeepers won’t be seen as a “neutral party” anymore.

Austrian finance minister Maria Fekter speaks with undersecretary Josef Ostermayer while foreign minister Michael Spindelegger listens to a debate in parliament, Vienna, March 28, 2012
Austrian finance minister Maria Fekter speaks with undersecretary Josef Ostermayer while foreign minister Michael Spindelegger listens to a debate in parliament, Vienna, March 28, 2012 (Martin Juen)

The expiration of a European Union arms embargo against Syria forces Austria to rethink its deployment of nearly four hundred peacekeepers to the disputed Golan Heights between Israel and Syria because it is no longer seen as a “neutral party” there, its foreign minister warned.

Although Michael Spindelegger insisted on Tuesday that there was no “urgent situation of having to pull out tomorrow,” he had said in a television interview the day before that it would be “very difficult” for the Alpine country to maintain its armed forces in the Golan if other European nations send weapons to Syrian rebel forces.

Opposition parties called for the immediate withdrawal of Austrian troops after European foreign ministers failed to extend the embargo on Monday. The situation in the region has become “totally unpredictable,” nationalist Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache lamented. “It must not happen that our soldiers are crushed between the millstones like grains of sand,” said the liberals’ Josef Bucher.

Austrian soldiers comprise the bulk of an international monitoring mission on the Israeli-Syrian border that has been deployed since 1974. Their withdrawal would leave a huge hole in the force of some 1,000 that is already under pressure to keep the two Middle Eastern countries, formally still at war, at bay.

Since the beginning of the uprising, Israel has at least twice carried out airstrikes into Syria to prevent advanced weaponry from reaching Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that supports the government and is also backed by its ally Iran.

Austria’s ruling conservatives and Social Democrats were cautious. “There is no EU authorization for arms deliveries,” Spindelegger told reporters in Vienna after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, “and this is absolutely decisive.”

Spindelegger, with his Dutch and German counterparts, had resisted lifted the embargo for fear of exacerbating the civil war in Syria where mainly radical fighters from the majority Sunni populations are battling the secular regime of President Bashar Assad. France and the United Kingdom wanted to relax sanctions, however, hoping that it would pressure Assad into taking peace talks, due to take place in Geneva next month, seriously.

The British previously announced that they intended to provide Syrian opposition groups with armored vehicles and body armor to defend themselves and civilians against attacks from government forces.

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