In the annals of United Nations peacekeeping, the decision of Austria to follow Japan and Croatia and pull their few hundred troops off the thin blue line between Israel and Syria is among the most irresponsible and demeaning. It is an action that India — which has among the best, if not the best, peacekeeping traditions of any country, and also has troops on the Golan Heights — will hopefully not emulate.
Austria announced its pullout after a Filipino peacekeeper was injured in crossfire between Syrian rebel and government forces. Vienna cited the possibility of its own troops being killed or wounded. The contrast to India, which recently lost five of its finest in South Sudan but did not reconsider its mission in that troubled African country, is stark.
Austria and the Philippines have lost soldiers without complaint before in UN peacekeeping actions. But in this they showed the instincts of a “post-military” society and have shown why it and similar countries should never be considered for the dirty but important task of policing the world.
India has lost over 150 soldiers to peacekeeping efforts across the world, the bulk of them in the Congo, Somalia and the Gaza Strip — parts of the world where India’s direct national interest is negligible to nonexistent, and that is the precise point of peacekeeping.
Countries offer their troops for such tasks because they accept that a neutral military presence is often necessary to help implement a negotiated settlement or, as is more often the case, provide a buffer that allows an intractable dispute to be kept on the shelf for the time being.
Only the naive believe that UN peacekeeping should be a holiday position, doing nothing more than benignly watching a peaceful and stable environment. Sensibly enough, UN operations are normally in places where instability is rife and where there is a blurred line between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. Otherwise the blue helmet presence would be redundant.
Obviously, the Syrian civil war has completely changed the environment for the Golan Heights peacekeeping force. Their positions may need to be strengthened or fortified but a UN pullout would enormously increase the likelihood of Syrian combatants coming to blows with the Israeli armed forces.
The Golan Heights blue helmets are necessary because of exactly that reason and which is why this precipitous pullout is such an irresponsible act.