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.
As the Syrian Civil War raged on, both rebels and government troops established positions around the Golan Heights. “We had situations in which peacekeepers were abducted,” Sobejana said. It started with a brief detention when rebels stopped a UN convoy on the way to conduct official business in Damascus. Next, the UN legal officer was held hostage by the rebels for eight months before escaping. “Different rebel groups have different mindsets,” the Philippine General explained. “The group that detained him wanted a ransom but the UN doesn’t pay ransoms.” The legal officer converted to Islam under coercion by his captors who gave him the option of allowing him to convert from Christianity or remain locked away in a small room indefinitely. A few weeks after converting, he was allowed outside to exercise and saw an opportunity to escape and ran to a Syrian Army base. After some initial confusion as the Syrians believed him to be a rebel, he was returned to the UN.
The situation escalated when the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade kidnapped 21 Filipino peacekeepers near observation position 58 in March of 2013. The Russian UN envoy stated at the time, “Right now there are negotiations between UN representatives and the captors and we hope that the [UN] personnel will be released immediately as the UNSC demands.” When the UN envoy referenced negotiations, he was speaking of General Sobjana’s efforts to secure the release of his men.
As bad as the situation was, in some ways it was business as usual for General Sobejana. As a veteran of his country’s war against groups like the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and the Islamist Abu Sayyaf Group, he was accustomed to dealing with armed bandits who ran kidnapping for ransom rackets. “I posted my number in the area and the rebel commander called me directly. It was good that he spoke English. He even addressed me as his friend. Don’t worry my friend we will not harm the Filipino peacekeepers we will treat them as guests, those were his words.” While in negotiations with the rebels, Sobejana found out that the group had kidnapped the peacekeepers in order to raise their public profile and to attempt to receive some sort of international recognition.
After four days it was agreed that they would be released but then they changed the venue.” Sobejana and his driver crossed into Syria alone to meet the rebels and recover the hostages at a checkpoint, “but they did not show up,” he explained. “They were probably thinking that they would be bombarded by the Syrian army the moment we parted ways. I was also thinking that.” The Syrian government was aware of Sobejana’s presence and knew what he was there for, but there were concerns that the Syrian Army does not always do what they say they will. “I think there is a breach in leadership or command and control…they do what they want.”
At this point, Sobejana had to arrange for a second attempt to recover the hostages. This time the hand off was to take place near the border between Syria and Jordan. Sobejana went through Israel, crossed through an immigration checkpoint into Jordan, traveled to Amman, and then to the Syrian border. A Jordanian border guard commander provided vehicles for the recovery. The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade crossed a small wooden bridge driving the UN armored vehicles which had been captured along with the Philippine peacekeepers. The ISIS-linked group had painted the vehicles from UN white to Islamic State black. They left one vehicle for Sobejana and took the other one back to Syria with them. As for the twenty-one peacekeepers, they were also released and crossed into Jordan.
During this same timeframe, American journalist Theo Padnos was being held captive by al-Nusra after being captured inside Syria. Traveling alongside a Nusra leader to the town of Daa’ra near the Golan Heights he chanced upon some fighters from the Free Syrian Army and struck up a conversation with them. They appeared to be in league with the Al-Qaeda linked fighters.
One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front.
“Really?” I said. “The Americans? I hope it was good training.”
“Certainly, very,” he replied.
The fighters stared at me. I stared at them.
After a few moments, I asked, “About this business of fighting Jebhat al Nusra?”
On another occasion, Theo had a conversation with the Nusra fighters about their views of the UN peacekeepers stationed at the nearby Golan Heights:
One day in August, a guard told me about a picnic he recently had with his family in the Golan Heights. “The U.N. soldiers,” he said, “were close enough to reach out and touch.” During the following days, small groups of Nusra Front fighters, most of whom I recognized from my time in Deir al-Zour, carried away items from a pile of munitions — artillery shells, sacks of bullets, launching tubes for rocket-propelled grenades — that had been left on a concrete slab. In the evenings, I was sometimes invited to lounge near the weapons with visiting emirs. The United Nations’ role in the Golan Heights was occasionally discussed in predictable terms: The U.N. was an instrument by which world powers oppressed the Muslims of Syria. It was a tool of the Jews. I yawned during these discussions. Why must they always recite Qaeda company policy at me? I thought.” (New York Times Magazine)
In August of 2014, while Theo was being lectured about the UN by Nusra, those same fighters were plotting to kidnap peacekeepers. This time it was the Fijian peacekeepers at position 28 who were taken hostage. Theo had just been released to the UN at the Golan Heights by al-Nusra in a deal brokered by Qatar. Now the terrorist group was looking for a new racket, and a new angle of attack. “They were surrounded initially and everyone went into the bomb shelter,” Sobejana said about the night the Fijians were attacked. “So the rebels had the opportunity to come into their position. The rebels were at the entrance of the bomb shelter and they negotiated that ‘we only need your guns.’ The rebels told them, ‘we only need your guns. Just lay down your guns and they will let them [the Fijians] walk away.”
The Fijians surrendered their firearms to al-Nusra thinking that they would then be allowed to leave, but of course the double-dealing terrorists simply took the unarmed peacekeepers hostage. The unarmed Fijians were brought to position 69 where there were Philippine peacekeepers stationed. Al-Nusra than demanded that the Philippine troops surrender their weapons to them and in exchange, the Fijians would be released. The Philippine troops, who it should again be mentioned are veteran fighters of Islamist forces in places like Mindanao, Sulu, and Basilan back in their home country were having none of it. As this was occurring, Sobejana had rotated back to the Philippines and was monitoring the situation remotely while serving as the Army’s G3, operations officer.
The peacekeepers were shocked by the orders they received from the United Nations. General Iqbal Singh Singha of India ordered the Philippine troops to lay down their arms and surrender to al-Nusra fearing for the safety of the Fijians who were held hostage. “I can tell you that this General does not listen to anyone on his staff,” Sobejana remembered. “I was his chief of staff and he does not listen at all. He is always correct. More often he wanted to decide on his own without consultation.”
“The worst decision he made was the order to tell our peacekeepers to lay down their arms in exchange for the release of the Fijians. Well, the Fijians were not happy because we did not do it because their freedom was tied into our surrender,” Sobejana said. “But we stuck to the rules of engagement. The Filipino soldier [in charge] on the ground disconnected himself from the United Nations chain of command because of that illegal order.” The Philippine soldiers didn’t go rogue, but they choose to take their orders from the chief of staff of the Philippine Army rather than follow illegal, immoral, and unethical orders to surrender to Islamist terrorists who have a reputation for horrendous war crimes committed against those they take captive.
“We defended our position and have 360 degree perimeter defense so they were not able to get inside. There was a fire fight,” Sobejana said. The rebels fired first which meant that the peacekeepers could now return fire under the Rules of Engagement. The shoot out went on for four or five hours. “There was a heavy exchange of gunfire,” the General described. Three or four Nusra terrorists lay dead at the end of the engagement. “After the firefight we were running short on ammo and I knew what was going on on the ground.”
Back in the Philippines a battle staff was convened to figure out how to deal with the situation and rescue their troops from the clutches of al-Nusra. With ammunition nearly depleted, and the Israelis flying a drone overhead to provide the peacekeepers with real-time intelligence on Nusra movements, it was decided that position 69 could not be held as it and that the men should be evacuated to a safer position. The siege lasted for several days and the peacekeepers soon established a pattern. Nusra was all tucked into bed by two or three in the morning, which provided the Philippine peacekeepers with a window to escape.
In the dead of night, the 37 or so peacekeepers cut through the outer wire that surrounded position 69 and slipped out before dashing a kilometer and a half to the safety of Israeli lines. “They stalked like a panther,” Sobejana said smiling “and they passed by the rebel position without being detected.” Once the men were all accounted for at Camp Ziouani, the Israelis bombarded position 69 so that Nusra could not occupy it.
General Sobejana reflected on the events that transpired over those three days and believes he made the right decision in his recommendation to the Philippine Army chief of staff. Surrender, “is not in the rules of engagement. I recommended to the Chief of Staff that sir, this is the right thing to do. We will not lay down our arms, we will defend ourselves as mandated as part of the rules of engagement.” In the future, Nusra realized that the Philippine peacekeepers were not afraid to fight and did not probe their positions in the Golan Heights or make any further attempts to kidnap them.
The Golan Heights continues to provide an interesting case study in military affairs, as well as how the chain of command works and doesn’t, and also brings up a number of unsettling questions that have never been fully answered. Who is really in charge during these peacekeeping operations? In times of uncertainty soldiers will invent their own orders and take their own initiative in the face of poor leadership. When faced with a inept supra-national command structure, peacekeepers may choose whose orders to follow, and will most likely feel more loyal to their home country than to the United Nations.
In yet other cases, SOFREP has had European soldiers describe their desire to be placed under American military command rather than that of their home country because they see the US as being more aggressive than their own military. In other circumstances, in Afghanistan for instance, European troops will make back channel calls to their governments and complain when ISAF is telling them to do something that they don’t want to do. Large military coalitions and peacekeeping missions certainly serve a purpose but also have their limitations.
In the Golan Heights, the Philippine peacekeepers were given an order to surrender which was unconscionable, particularly to an opposing force like al-Nusra. In the face of corrupted leadership, they took another path and stood up for themselves, as well as for the credibility of the United Nations itself even if UNDOF and the Fijian peacekeepers did not see it that way at that time. The Fijian peacekeepers were released in September of 2014.
After suffering the attrition of war, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade who kidnapped the first batch of Philippine peacekeepers folded into the Khalid ibn al-Walid Group which is affiliated with ISIS. In 2016 Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Khalid ibn al-Walid Group had apologized to him for a firefight they had started with the Israeli Defense Forces on the Golan Heights near the town of Alufa.
(Lead photo: UNDOF command element. General Iqbal Singh Singha stands center and General Lito Sobejana is standing on his left hand side. Picture courtesy of the United Nations.)