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.

al-Nusra near the Golan Heights. (Picture courtesy of the Jihad)

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.”