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Russia Offers to Replace Austria as UN Golan Peacekeepers

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to provide troops for the UN peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights after Austria decided to withdraw its soldiers, citing escalating risks from Syria’s civil war.

“Looking at the difficult situation today in the Golan Heights, we could take over from the outgoing Austrian contingent on the demarcation line between the Israeli forces and the Syrian army,” Putin said yesterday at a ceremony for military officers. “Of course, this would happen only if the regional powers support the idea, and if the UN secretary-general asks us to do this.”

Austrian Defense Minister Gerald Klug said June 6 the risks to his country’s soldiers had become “unacceptable” after clashes in the area between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters. Austria has been the biggest provider of troops to a United Nations contingent enforcing a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974.

Putin’s offer comes as Russia and the U.S. push for a conference next month in Geneva to encourage negotiations between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and opposition leaders.

While the UN is “grateful” for Putin’s proposal, countries that are permanent members of the Security Council aren’t allowed to participate in the force under the agreement between Syria and Israel that created the peacekeeping mission, Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said yesterday.

‘Dire Straits’

Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, said Russia is “obviously aware” of the 39-year-old document that created the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

“We believe that times have changed,” Churkin told reporters yesterday in New York, acknowledging that Putin’s offer would require action allowing permanent Security Council members to take part. “Now the context is completely different and UNDOF seems to be in dire straits, so we are offering to essentially rescue UNDOF.”

Earlier yesterday, Russia supported a Security Council statement expressing “grave concern” for recent heavy fighting in al-Qusair, a city near the border with Lebanon. Russia, the major arms supplier to Assad’s government, had blocked some earlier Security Council proposals about the Syrian crisis.

“It’s the first product of the Security Council on Syria for many months, apart from press statements on various terrorist incidents,” said Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s UN envoy and this month’s Council president. “So I think it’s significant, and it’s a sign that perhaps the Security Council is coming back together a little bit on the Syrian issue.”

Two-Track Approach

The UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations is pursuing a two-track approach, seeking troops for the Golan Heights mission from both existing participants and new contributor nations, Grant told reporters. He spoke after UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous briefed the Security Council.

Grant said he didn’t see an “immediate” prospect of a Russian deployment, as Ladsous “appeared confident” there will be other contributors.

Syrian government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies on June 5 seized control of al-Qusair.

Hope for a negotiated end to the Syrian crisis may have died with the victory of government forces in al-Qusair, the Institute for the Study of War said in a report.

‘Unswerving Support’

“That the regime was able to execute such an operation at this stage of the war testifies to its resilience and adaptability, and, more importantly, to the unswerving support of its allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Washington-based group, and author of the report titled “The Fall of Al-Qusair”. “This portends the failure of the summit and an end to international efforts to resolve the conflict through negotiations.”

Government control of al-Qusair, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Homs, secures lines of communication from Damascus to the coast, cuts cross-border weapons supplies for the rebels and provides a staging ground for efforts to retake opposition areas to the north and east, the report said.

Britain and France plan to arm the Syrian rebels if the Geneva meeting fails to make progress, according to unidentified U.K. officials cited by the Financial Times on May 31. The same officials said Britain and France expected the U.S. to also send weapons if the talks failed.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in comments broadcast on state television yesterday that arming the rebels was “the road to nowhere.”

Aid Request

The UN yesterday asked for an additional $2.9 billion to meet the needs of Syrians in 2013 both inside the country and abroad. The figure was revised upward to $4.4 billion from $1.5 billion. So far, the UN says it has received $1.24 billion of the total amount required.

One in three Syrians is now in need of urgent assistance, UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos said in beginning the world body’s biggest-ever aid appeal. Between January and April, the number of people displaced within Syria more than doubled, and the situation in the region has worsened with over 1.6 million Syrians sheltering in neighboring countries and in North Africa, Amos said.

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