The Syrian government has withdrawn large numbers of troops from the Golan Heights, in a move that has cast doubt over the future of a UN peacekeeping force on the strategically vital plateau, the British Guardian reported Sunday.
Western diplomats told the newspaper that the Syrian redeployments near the Golan ceasefire line were the most significant in 40 years, with at least several thousand soldiers thought to have been moved in recent weeks to battle fronts closer to Damascus.
Rebel groups have moved into the vacuum, the report said, and Israel fears that jihadists will use the area as a staging ground for attacks on Israeli territory.
Meanwhile, the United Nations observer force on the Golan Heights, UNDOF, finds itself in an ever more vulnerable position, with states whose peacekeepers comprise the mission known to be reconsidering their commitment, including the Austrians, who provide the largest individual contribution of troops, the report said.
"They [the Syrian government] have moved some of their best battalions away from the Golan," a western diplomatic source told the Guardian of the Syrian changes. "They have replaced some of them with poorer-quality battalions, which have involved reducing manpower. The moves are very significant."
Separate media reports in Israel suggest the Syrian redeployments could amount to as many as two divisions – up to 20,000 soldiers, the newspaper reported.
"UNDOF is of the highest importance, now more than ever," said one senior Israeli government official. "We know some participant countries are having second thoughts and we're concerned about that. We are talking to them to try to understand what they plan on doing if the going gets rougher. We know some are hesitating, and it's a problematic situation.
"We are also talking to New York [the UN headquarters] about whether there could be a replacement in case one contingent pulls out. We don't envision a scenario in which UNDOF dissolves but we are very aware of the fragility of the situation," said the official who was quoted by the Guardian.
Canada, Japan and Croatia have withdrawn their contingents in recent months leaving only the Philippines, Austria and India in UNDOF.
Last month, Syrian rebels abducted 21 Philippine members of UNDOF, which has monitored a ceasefire zone between Syria and Israel since 1974. They were released and crossed to Jordan several days later.
The abduction was condemned by world powers and triggered a flurry of diplomatic action to secure the peacekeepers' release.
It also sparked fears that more governments would withdraw their contingents from the already depleted UN mission.
Israel warned that any further reduction in UNDOF strength risked creating a security vacuum in the no-man's land between the two sides on the Golan Heights.