Filipino peacekeepers in Golan: A 'battalion of excellence'

MANILA, Philippines – The 72 Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights are the pride of every Filipino soldier: they are living testaments of extraordinary courage.

You can joke all you want about the Vietnam War assets of the Philippine military, but trust that if it has to come down to battle, man to man, these soldiers will fight – if not for their country, for their life and their honor.

"I just like to emphasize that our troops are well armed. They are well trained before their deployment. They are well disciplined warrior peacekeepers," said Colonel Roberto Ancan, the commanding officer of the peacekeeping operations center in the Philippines. (READ: PH troops in Golan to defend posts vs rebels)

The peacekeepers belong to the 80th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army, a group of soldiers in their 20s holding ranks of Private First Class or Corporal led by  Colonel Ezra Enriquez and Lieutenant Colonel Ted Dumusmog, contigent commander and commander of the Philippine Battalion, respectively. 

Prior to their deployment to Golan in November 2013, the entire battalion went through the Army's Battalion of Excellence (BOE) program. They were plucked out of their operational area in Mindoro – where they fought communist insurgents – to undergo months-long rigorous retraining in Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. They got new firearms, too.

On Thursday, August 28, Syrian rebels surrounded the encampments of 75 Filipino peacekeepers in the central part of Golan Heights, demanding that they surrender their firearms. The soldiers of the 80th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army stood their ground, refusing to meet the fate of their fellow Fijian peacekeepers who were taken hostage after they surrendered their firearms.

The standoff is nearing Day 3 at 10 am Saturday morning, August 30, in Syria (3 pm in Manila). Morale of the troops remain high inspite of the difficult situation, according to an officer who was able to communicate with the troops Friday afternoon. 

Rebels get bolder

In the Philippines, Filipino soldiers are beaming with pride. Their sentments have overflowed into their Facebook pages. There is confidence that like the 25 troops abducted in Golan Heights last year, the troops will be able to wiggle their way out of the situation and come home safe and complete. The United Nations (UN) is in backchannel talks to end the standoff.

The Filipino peacekeepers were out on patrol and were unarmed when they were taken by Syrian rebels last year. UN protocol discourages them from bringing their firearms around because the rebels would want those guns to fight government forces. They were eventually released.

The situation is different this time around. As the internal conflict in Syria escalates, the rebels have become bolder. They trooped to the encampments of the UN peacekeepers to demand their firearms. The Filipinos refused and the standoff began. 

It would have been a harvest for the rebels. The troops are equipped with M4 assault rifles, M60 light machineguns, K3 squad automatic weapons, and Caliber 45 pistols.

The order to the troops is clear: Stand your ground. As members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the troops get their orders from the UN. In another post in northern Golan, the UN has ordered another group of 58 Filipino peacekeepers to leave theirs posts and consolidate at the UNDOF headquarters.

Ancan said the 72 troops in a standoff with the Syrian rebels are prepared to fight if it comes down to it. "They know the risks they have to face as soldiers. They are professional soldiers. It’s just part of the job. They are committed," Ancan told reporters.

Unlike last year, the troops can fight back. They are armed and are in a defensive mode. The encampment is also well fortified with a CCTV camera that can monitor movements of rebels outside the encampment. 

The incident  happens as the Philippine government is finalizing the pullout of the troops in Golan. The peacekeepers are only supposed to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria in Golan Heights, a buffer zone between the two warring countries. The situation has chaged since the internal conflict in Syria erupted in 2011 however.

The Philippines already considered pulling out its Golan peacekeepers after the kidnapping incidents last year but was prevailed upon by the UN to stay inspite of continued withdrawal of countries like Australia, Croatia and Japan. Escalating internal violence prompted the new decision to pull out.

Warriors

Retired General now Defense Undersecretary Natalio Ecarma III, former Force Commander of the UN Continget to Golan Heights, is monitoring the situation closely. 

"Rebels are rebels....I am concerned but I believe in our Filipino peacekeepers. They are experienced warriors and Filipino soldiers do not just easily give up their firearms," Ecarma told reporters Friday afternoon.

Inspite of the confidence that the rebels will not risk antagonizing the United Nations, there is a hushed recognition that the situation in Syria is deteriorating and the rebels they've made friends with last year may be different people today.

But there has been no firefight within the Filipino encampments, which officials interpreted as a good sign that the situation will be resolved peacefully.

The world awaits the peaceful resolution of the standoff. But soldiers are soldiers, too. Like the rest of the Filipino troops used to fighting and losing men in the country's own internal conflicts – the communist insurgency, the Muslim separatist groups, and terrorists, among others – the soldiers of the 80th Infantry Battalion are ready for this. – Rappler.com