Putin offers troops to replace Austrians on Golan, speaks with Netanyahu

UN says no after Russian president suggests his soldiers could join the UN peacekeeping force on the Israeli-Syrian border

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Sochi, Russia, on Friday, May 17, 2013. (Photo credit: AP/Maxim Shipenkov, Pool)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Sochi, Russia, on Friday, May 17, 2013. (Photo credit: AP/Maxim Shipenkov, Pool)

President Vladimir Putin offered on Friday to send Russian troops to the Golan Heights to replace the Austrians who are withdrawing from the UN peacekeeping force that monitors the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces.

“Naturally, that will happen only if the regional powers show interest in our proposal and if the UN secretary-general asks us to do that,” Putin said, adding that Ban Ki-moon had personally asked him to increase Russia’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations during a visit to Russia last month.

Putin’s offer was quickly turned down, however, by Josephine Guerrero, spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping department. She said that while the offer was appreciated, the disengagement agreement and accompanying protocol do not allow the participation of troops from a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

According to a diplomat who spoke to Reuters said that Moscow’s support for Assad could mean that “Russian troops might not be seen as neutral by Syria’s rebels, which could invite opposition attacks on the UN Golan force.”

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at UN headquarters in New York that he raised Putin’s offer during Security Council consultations on the UN force, known as UNDOF, which has been caught up in the spillover of fighting between government and opposition fighters in Syria, including being the target of three hostage-takings by rebel fighters.

“Obviously we are aware of that document, but we believe that times have changed,” Churkin said. “The document was signed 39 years ago at the height of Cold War and the whole context of the war of 1973. Now the context is completely different.”

Churkin said council members agreed that Syria and Israel would have to approve a Russian deployment. He added that UN legal experts would also examine whether the council might have to adopt a resolution if the Russian offer moves forward.

The Kremlin said Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Syria during a telephone conversation on Friday. No details were given. Russia is a close ally of Syria and Putin would almost certainly not have made the offer without advance approval from its president, Bashar Assad.

Austria announced Thursday that it is withdrawing 377 UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights after Syrian rebels briefly overran a crossing point near the border with Israel. Churkin said Russia was prepared to replace the Austrian contingent “quite expeditiously.”

The United Nations is urgently looking for troops to replace the Austrians, who made up a sizeable portion of the 911-member peacekeeping force. The Philippines and India also contribute troops.

UNDOF “seems to be in dire straits,” Churkin said. “We are offering essentially to rescue UNDOF, but of course that problem needs to be sorted out.”

He said Russia is waiting to see the reaction from Syria and Israel and will likely consult with the other permanent members of the council — the US, China, Britain and France — “because they are also mentioned in the protocols.”

Britain’s UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the current Security Council president, said “it’s good” that Russia made the offer, which was welcomed by some council members. The peacekeeping department “will need to take that offer alongside offers from other potential troop contributors,” he said.

The peacekeeping department “appeared confident that there will be offers from other troop contributing countries, and including some existing troop contributing countries,” Lyall Grant said.

He said peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous also raised the possibility of increasing UNDOF to its authorized strength of 1,250 peacekeepers.

Israel has expressed concern about the security of the crossing point on the demilitarized area on the plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke with Ban about Syria, including the escalation of tensions on the Golan Heights, the ministry said.

Lyall Grant said the peacekeeping department will be providing options to the council in the coming weeks on possibly strengthening or changing the UNDOF mandate, which expires at the end of June, in light of the fact that fighting in Syria is likely to continue for some time.

“All 15 (council) members are united on the need for UNDOF to try to continue to do its mission as best it can,” Lyall Grant said. “We’re in a serious situation and we need to work together to try and protect the mission from collapse.”

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