General Cirilito “Lito” Sobejana joined the Golan Heights United Nations mission in 2013 as the Chief of Staff of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) responsible for ensuring that Syria and Israel do not violate the Agreement on Disengagement that they signed at the end of the 1973 Yom-Kippur War. For Sobejana and his Philippine peacekeepers, it was far from their first rodeo. The mission had unique challenges, but also some commonalities with the situation they faced back home. “My first impression there was for us to act as peacekeepers and maintain the truce between Syria and Israel, that was our primary task,” Sobejana told SOFREP. “But in doing our job the bigger challenge that we faced was the civil war in Syria. Some rebel groups were fighting against Assad and his administration.”
The Golan Heights were at the center of a complicated political and military situation made yet more confusing by the onset of the Syrian Civil War. Since the end of the war in 1973, the Golan Heights had remained a bitter issue. President Assad remarked before the Civil War that it would be remembered forever if he was able to negotiate the Golan Heights back from Israel. He never did. During a 2016 conference for journalists in Damascus, Samir Baridi, a member of the Syrian intelligentsia, described the Golan Heights as, “Syrian land occupied by the Zionist entity.”
The Syrian border with Israel and the line of disengagement has abutted territory belonging to perhaps as many as fourteen different rebel groups at various time. These include Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups which are really just al-Nusra cut outs who have been trained by US Special Forces in Jordan under the auspices of a CIA covert operation. After years of speculation, it also came out in the press in 2017 that Israel had been providing aid to some of the Syrian rebels on the Golan Heights in an effort to carve out a buffer zone.
“We would patrol every day and we have a lot of positions,” Sobejana explained, the UNDOF positions running from Jordan all the way up to Lebanon. The mission itself was staffed by peacekeepers hailing from Ireland, India, the Philippines, Fiji, and Nepal, the command and control element based out of Camp Ziouani just inside Israel and outside of the line of disengagement. The peacekeepers maintained the line of separation where there was to be no Syrian or Israeli military activity and only a UN presence, as well as the line of limitation in which both nations could have limited numbers of troops.