Austrian Armed Forces in UNDOF
"Austria and UNDOF”, this is the story of a long and successful relationship in the service of peace. Since 1974 Austrian troops have been serving on the Golan Heights, and the contingent in battalion-size is well known under its designation AUSBATT. The battalion is part and parcel of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, better known under its abbreviation UNDOF.
The Force consists of a headquarters (HQ), a logistics battalion (LOGBATT) and two line battalions, one of which is AUSBATT. The other one comes from Poland and therefore is called POLBATT. In AUSBATT we also find Slovak soldiers who work together with the Austrians and form one company of the battalion. Presently, LOGBATT is under Canadian control, supported by Japan. HQ UNDOF consists of individuals from all troop contributing nations.
The soldiers of each nation are organized in so-called contingents (CON), hence we find in UNDOF AUCON, CANCON, POLCON, SLOVCON and JCON. The highest ranking officer in each contingent is the National Contingent Commander (NCC), who is responsible for all national matters. The head of UNDOF is the Force Commander (FC), at present Lieutenant General B. N. Sharma from Nepal. His staff is broken down into a military staff, organized similar to an Austrian brigade staff, and into a civil administration staff. The head of the military staff is the Chief of Staff (COS), responsible for all operational matters of the Force. On the other hand, the head of the administrative staff is the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). The civil administration supports the mission in financial, logistic and administrative matters, and consists of UN officials and local employees. At the moment, the strength of the military personnel in UNDOF amounts to 1047 soldiers, 377 of them are Austrians.
The immigration of Jews from Europe to Palestine started at the beginning of the 20th century, inspired by the idea of a Jewish State. After the withdrawal of the British administration and the establishment of Israel in 1948 war broke out immediately between this newly-born state and its Arab neighbours. Since then the region has not enjoyed peace. The Six Day War of 1967 brought Israel large territorial gains. Especially the Golan Heights carried decisive strategic importance, and therefore the Israelis captured this area from Mount Hermon in the north to the Yarmuk River in the south, including its principal city of Quneitra.
During the Yom Kippur War of 1973 Egypt, Syria and Jordan tried to re-conquer their territories lost in the Six Day War. They launched a surprise attack and gained some terrain but in the end they did not succeed. Eventually, mediated by the United States and the Soviet Union, a ceasefire came into force. In 1974 a conference under UN auspices was convened in Geneva where the disengagement between Syrian and Israeli troops was agreed. UNDOF was launched under UN-Resolution 350 and was deployed to observe the troop disengagement. Since then no hostilities of any sort have taken place in this area.
After the Yom Kippur War on the Egyptian front an Austrian contingent was deployed on the Sinai Peninsula to monitor the ceasefire between Egypt and Israel in the framework of the United Nations Emergency Force II (UNEF II). UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim requested the Austrian government to transfer the Austrian troops to the Golan Heights. After approval, 179 soldiers on 53 vehicles, covering a distance of 680 km in four days, marched to Saasaa, a small village in the south of Damascus. At the beginning, Kanaker Barracks of the Syrian army was assigned to the Austrians as camp and HQ of AUSBATT, whereas Force HQ was located in Damascus.
However, Camp Kanaker was only an expedient. For HQ AUSBATT it was necessary to move closer to where the companies were operating, and therefore the Austrians started to renovate a former kolkhoz previously constructed by the German Democratic Republic, today’s Camp Faouar. Work ended just in time for AUSBATT to move into the new camp before winter 1974. For more than 30 years HQ AUSBATT has been continuously located in this Camp, so generations of Austrian soldiers have served here and brought their ideas and imaginations to bear to improve their home. Today we can find a church, tennis courts, a sauna and many other amenities in the camp to make duty more convenient for the soldiers.
The transfer of HQ UNDOF from Damascus into Camp Faouar in 1994 was a big challenge because the camp was almost too small. Therefore, the civilian and the military construction officers had a lot of planning and managing to do until this project came true. Today we can find a huge building in the middle of the camp, which is called "Pentagon” and lodges HQ UNDOF. The construction of new buildings and the modernization or demolishing of old ones is still an ongoing process. Although the camp has been in existence for more than 30 years, it seems that it has always been under construction. But obviously this is a typical Austrian trait because Austrians are always trying to make things better and more comfortable.
Operationally, Alpha-Line was drawn in the west, not to be crossed by Israeli Forces, and Bravo-Line in the east, not to be crossed by Syrian Forces. Between these lines lies the Area of Separation (AOS) as a buffer zone. Extending 25 km to either side is the Area of Limitation (AOL) where the UN supervises the numbers of Syrian and Israeli troops and weapons. Inside the AOS UNDOF operates with checkpoints and patrols. Between A and B-Line, in the AOS, the two line-battalions are operating, in the northern part AUSBATT from the Mount Hermon massif to the region of Quneitra, and in the south POLBATT down to the Jordanian border. The highest peak in the buffer-zone is Mount Hermon with 2,814 m above sea-level; the lowest point is at the Yarmuk River 200 m below sea-level. In a north - south direction the Zone has an extension of about 100 km and a difference in altitude of approximately 3,000 m.
Between Israel and Syria there is no official border crossing, but for the UN one crossing point exists near Quneitra, which is called "The Gate”. Although the line battalions and HQ operate on the Syrian side, HQ POLBATT, one checkpoint position, and HQ LOGBATT are on the Israeli side, located in Camp Ziouani. Most of the Austrians serve on the Syrian side, only a few who are members of the military police fulfil their duties at the crossing point.
While the Austrian Contingent has always been located in the northern part of the AOS since it arrived on the Golan Heights in 1974, in the southern part the contingents responsible for that area changed frequently. In the early beginning the southern area of responsibility was manned by troops from Peru (PERBATT). After their withdrawal in 1975 they were succeeded by a battalion from Iran (IRANBATT), which was withdrawn in 1979 because of the Islamic Revolution in their home country. Then Finland took over, and FINBATT stayed until 1993. They were replaced by a Polish contingent. This POLBATT is still serving there, together with AUSBATT.
So far, four Austrian officers served as Force Commanders or Officers in Charge of UNDOF: - Major General Hannes PHILIPP (December 1974 - May 1979); - Major General Günther GREINDL (May 1979 - February 1981); - Colonel (GS) Walter SCHMITT (February 1982 - June 1982); - Major General Adolf RADAUER (September 1988 - October 1991).
The Austrians on the Golan today
AUSBATT consists of three rifle companies in the line and HQ company in Camp Faouar. In addition, military policemen are serving in the MP Platoon and about 37 Austrian soldiers in the Force HQ.
1st Company (Coy) is deployed on the Mount Hermon. Especially during the winter it is not easy to survive there with blizzards of up to 150 km/h and temperatures falling down to minus 25 degrees. Due to the fact that these positions are often cut off from supply, during autumn their positions must be prepared and provided with food and petrol rations for the winter. These climatic conditions create great psychological stresses and strains on the soldiers serving up there, and therefore they are hand-picked to make sure they can bear those hardships.
2nd Coy is deployed in the Quneitra area. This Coy monitors the main roads leading into the AOS. Several times during the year Israel and Syria permit crossings of Arab citizens under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at an unofficial gate in the area. These people are pilgrims and students of the University of Damascus living in Israel or in the occupied territories.
3rd Coy is composed of Slovak soldiers and is deployed in the middle of the AUSBATT sector.
All positions are well equipped and stocked. They are absolutely self-sufficient and can act independently for about seven days or even longer. Cooking is done by selected soldiers, who apart from their cooking do a good job also as patrolmen.
Line duty is tough. The patrols are run on armoured personnel carriers (APC), but in mountain areas the patrolmen have to walk on foot. The tasks of the soldiers on checkpoints and patrols are: - Monitoring the AOS with a view to preventing military personnel of both sides from entering this Zone; - Reporting any violations of the Agreement; - Preventing any people from crossing the A-line, except those with a Gate permit.
In many cases the patrol routes and roads are the only areas that are cleared from mines, and therefore it is forbidden to enter the intermediate terrain. Only sheep of farmers graze there, and sometimes a mine detonates, killing one of these animals.
At one point the Force Commander described Camp Faouar in a briefing as "Little Austria”. On the occasion of every Monday morning briefing the national anthem is played via loudspeaker on the parade square, and the Austrian flag is hoisted. On Sundays the Chaplain rings the church bells and says Mass. The international kitchen offers meals from each troop contributing country, but most of the dishes are typically Austrian. Also an Austrian post office is operated with the postal code A-1500, which indicates that the Camp is the 50th district of Vienna. The music comes from Radio "Gecko”, which is the Austrian broadcasting station on the Golan Heights.
Medical support for all UN soldiers but also for Syrians in need is rendered by the Austrian medical centre in Camp Faouar. Three medical doctors, two Austrians and one Slovak, give first aid and provide transport for patients to hospitals either in Damascus or Tel Aviv, if need be. In the winter, when the mountain roads often are not negotiable, a medical doctor is stationed on Mount Hermon. One of the most challenging problems concerning medical support is to find trained medical doctors to stay in the Mission for six months or even longer. In many cases, closing down their offices back home for such a long period is not possible.
Normally the Austrian soldiers stay in the Mission for one year, especially the key personnel on NCO/WO levels and the officers. In order to guarantee continuity in the various organizational elements, rotation is organized twice a year in June and December with half of the teams changing. After a three- months stay in the Mission the soldiers may receive the UN decoration "In the Service of Peace”. In the presence of the Force Commander and the Austrian ambassador in Syria, the medals are awarded in the framework of a special ceremony called medal parade. After the first medal the soldiers may receive an additional silver number on his ribbon for every additional six months in the Mission. Numbers with two digits are not uncommon because some Austrians have spent five and even more years of their lives on the Golan.
Peacekeeping - an Austrian Perspective
The United Nations were founded as an organization to maintain peace and security all over the world. Therefore, each member state is called upon to provide troops for this special endeavor. Austria was one of the first countries that deployed troops for peacekeeping projects in Congo in the sixties, and Cyprus and the Middle East in the seventies. During those years Austria was one of the greatest troop contributing nations. But times have changed. Nowadays there are a lot of other countries that provide large contingents, and sometimes the question is raised in Austria if it is still necessary for a small country to contribute troops to the UN.
As a reply may serve: No doubt, Austria must remain an active player in the peacekeeping arena! In the first place, UNDOF is a mission of long standing that has been operating for more than 30 years. Therefore, for any newcomer of any rank UNDOF will provide an excellent chance to step into the peace mission scenario smoothly. The experience of working together with people from all over the world with different cultures, religions and customs provides an opportunity to gain intercultural competence and a better understanding of other views. And respect and understanding of other people and the ability to discuss their problems are the first steps toward peace.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed this very clearly by saying: "Peacekeeping has not been the answer to every conflict. But over the course of more than half a century, United Nations ‘Blue Helmets’ have saved tens of thousands of lives, helped prevent a recurrence of conflict, and have given time and space for conflict resolution.” Therefore, for Austria peacekeeping on the Golan Heights is not only a long and dear tradition but also a possibility to play a vital and honourable role in the international political scene.
___________________________________ __________________________________ By: Colonel Dr. Andreas Stupka, COS UNDOF