With PH peacekeepers gone, UN to ‘configure’ Golan mission
UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations will adjust the composition of its peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights with Filipino peacekeepers heading home.
The world body said it has yet to plan how to replace the Filipino troops after their early departure because of the deteriorating security situation there.
On Thursday, September 18, 244 Filipino peacekeepers left for Manila following the UN’s decision to pull out its peacekeepers from the Syrian side of the Golan as armed groups made advances in the area.
“In terms of replacements, in view of recent developments on the ground, [the UN], in the coming weeks, will be working to consider how the Force will be configured to ensure that [it] continues to use its best efforts to implement its mandate,” said UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric on Friday, September 19.
Dujarric said that as of Thursday, 100 Filipino troops still remained in the Golan Heights, along with 445 Fijian peacekeepers, 191 Indians, 155 Nepalese, and two Dutch. The total number of peacekeepers was 1,027.
Known as the UN Disengagement Observer Force or UNDOF, the mission is mandated to observe the 1974 ceasefire agreement between Syria and Israel. A report of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon shows peacekeepers face increasing safety threats as the violence from the Syrian civil war spilled over to the Golan Heights.
The departure of the Filipino peacekeepers follows a controversy surrounding their standoff with Syrian rebels, including the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front in late August.
The Filipinos claimed UNDOF’s Indian commander Lieutenant General Iqbal Singh Singha ordered them to surrender their weapons to the rebels, a charge the UN denied. Singha shot back by calling the Filipinos’ unsanctioned escape “an act of cowardice.”
But the commander of the Filipino Battallion in the Golan Heights Colonel Ezra Enriquez insisted it was a right decision. In his 30 years of service in the military, he said he had never defied tactical, operational or administrative orders until the Syrian standoff.
The UN remained non-committal on the Philippines’ request to investigate the incident, and to review the mission’s mandate.
“I think the situation remains quite intense on the Golan and we need to get kind of past the current events and then after vetting, an investigation will be conducted,” Dujarric said.
Mission must ‘flexibly adjust posture’
The UN Security Council also released a statement Friday in response to the Secretary-General’s report on the volatile situation in the Golan that exposes peacekeepers to growing security risks.
The Council is in charge of setting and renewing UNDOF's mandate.
Besides the standoff between Syrian rebels and the Filipino troops, Al-Nusra also detained Fijian peacekeepers for two weeks, and took their weapons.
“The Security Council recognizes the necessity of efforts to flexibly adjust UNDOF's posture to minimize risk to UN personnel as UNDOF continues to implement its mandate, while emphasizing that the ultimate goal is for the peacekeepers to return to their positions in UNDOF's area of operation as soon as practicable,” read the statement.
The statement did not touch on the Philippine call to revisit the mandate and rules of engagement of UNDOF.
“The Security Council notes the importance of maintaining UNDOF's force strength and self-defense resources to the level necessary to carry out its important mandate, and to retain its quick reaction and counter-IED capabilities, which have proved indispensable in the face of a changing security environment.”
The Council asked Ban to give an update after 30 days on steps needed to maintain UNDOF’s ability to carry out its mandate.
It called on Syrian rebels and armed forces to leave the UNDOF positions and the strategic Quneitra border, and to return peacekeepers’ vehicles, weapons and equipment.
Ban has said in his report that armed groups looted UN equipment and vehicles, and even wore UN uniforms and blue berets.
The Council hailed UNDOF as “a vital contributor to peace and security in the Middle East.” It thanked countries like the Philippines for sending troops to support the mission.
"The Security Council commends UNDOF and UNTSO-Observer Group Golan peacekeepers for their bravery in facing the threats and challenges in their area of operation, and extends its appreciation to the troop contributing countries.” – Rappler.com
Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig is a 2014 fellow of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists. She is in New York to cover the UN General Assembly, foreign policy, diplomacy, and world events.