Syrian troop withdrawal from Golan raises concerns

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Syria’s government has withdrawn a significant number of troops from the Golan Heights, raising Western concerns.

The redeployment of Syrian troops is the most significant in 40 years, the British daily The Guardian reported.

Rebel groups have moved into the area, leading to Israeli fears that the rebels could attack its northern border.

"They [the Syrian government] have moved some of their best battalions away from the Golan," said a Western diplomatic source of the Syrian changes, The Guardian reported. "They have replaced some of them with poorer-quality battalions, which have involved reducing manpower. The moves are very significant."

The troop withdrawal also could endanger the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, according to the newspaper. Several countries with peacekeepers in the force reportedly are considering withdrawing their troops, including Austria. Croatia withdrew its troops in February.

"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."

Gunfire from Syria has struck Israeli territory several times, and Israel has retaliated with missile fire three times.
 

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