India’s peacekeepers are at risk as the security situation deteriorates amidst UNSC’s squabbling.
Things aren’t looking all that great in Syria. The UN now estimates that 93,000 people have been killed in the two year-old civil war. The Alawites and their allies, propped up by Iran and Russia, and the various Sunni Islamist factions are butchering themselves to oblivion.
But the prolonged bickering in the UN Security Council and the Council’s inability to pass a resolution to bring this war to an end and prepare for an inevitable post-Assad Syria is extending the political and humanitarian crisis in that country. The U.S. drew “red lines” for intervening if the al-Assad regime used chemical or biological weapons against its people. But when it turned out that Bashar al-Assad had ordered the use of sarin on rebel forces, the U.S.’s response was muted: it held joint military exercises with its ally in Jordan along the Syrian border.
Russia, other the other hand, has consistently threatened to veto resolutions at the UNSC to enforce a no-fly zone. So the UN has been ineffectual and bodies like the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference have done little more during this period than underscore the irrelevance of their existence.
Meanwhile, the risk of the war spilling over into the Golan Heights along Syria’s border with Israel has increased. The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has historically been supported by contingents from the Philippines, India and Austria charged with maintaining the peace in the buffer zone, has come under attack from Syrian rebel forces. Peacekeepers from the Philippines were detained (and subsequently released) by Syrian rebels in March 2013. But the very structural composition of the UNDOF, as envisioned in the 1973 UN Agreement on Disengagement between Israeli and Syrian Forces is problematic under the circumstances (emphasis added):
The function of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) under the agreement will be to use its best efforts to maintain the Ceasefiie and to see that it is scrupulously observed. It will supervise the agreement and protocol thereto with regard to the areas of separation and limitation. In carrying out its mission, it will comply with generally applicable Syrian laws and regulations and will not hamper the functioning of local civil administration. It trill enjoy freedom of movement and communication and other facilities that are necessary for its mission. It will be mobile and provided with personal weapons of a defensive character and shall use such weapons only in self-defence. The number of the UNDOF shall be about 1,250, who will be selected by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in consultation with the parties from members of the United Nations who are not permanent members of the Security Council. [United Nations]
Effectively, this means that non-UNSC members are entrusted with maintaining the peace in a volatile region while having no influence in bringing about conditions for peace. The Austrians have already withdrawn their contingent from Golan. The Indian contingent is the second-largest in the Golan Heights (after the Philippines), with about 200 peacekeepers. The Philippines has already warned that it may pull out its peacekeepers as well.
With the security situation deteriorating and no end to the UNSC’s internal squabbles, it is time we considered a full pullout or at the very least, a substantial reduction in our footprint. This will not, in and of itself, hasten the UNSC to act decisively in Syria, but there is no need for India to put its troops in harm’s way while the situation deteriorates in the region.