PH and Fiji in Golan: One order, different outcomes

MANILA, Philippines – Peacekeeping forces from two countries were caught in a similar situation, and were given the same order by their overall commander. Each took a different path – one defied it and the other followed – leading to different outcomes.

Fiji’s Army Chief Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga revealed in various interviews that the detained 45 Fijian peacekeepers, in fact, surrendered to the Syrian rebels following the orders of United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) Commander Lieutenant General Iqbal Singha, based on various reports in Fiji.

"At no stage in an operation would I expect any of my officers not to follow the decisions of the first commander....The Filipinos chose to do so and the Philippines government has supported them for having chosen that path," Tikoitoga said in new interview defending the surrender. The situation of the Fijians was being compared to the Filipinos who were able to escape

“We cannot criticize them for it, nor can we follow the decision they have made. We live by our own ethos of following command," Tikoitoga added. 

Forty Filipinos in the besieged UN facility Position 68 disobeyed Singha's orders to surrender their weapons and executed an unauthorized escape mission after a 7-hour firefight with rebels. (READ: Inside Filipino troops' 'greatest escape' in Golan)

Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr said there was no guarantee that the Syrian rebels – among them members of the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front – will not also take them hostage after they surrender their firearms. 

While Filipinos celebrate the daring escape of their soldiers in the middle of the night when the rebels were asleep, Singha is telling Indian media that the move was an "act of cowardice."

"The higher UN echelon as well as the Indian Army agrees with me that the decision was correct. It is an act of cowardice to desert posts especially when a delicate ceasefire was in place....They broke the chain of command and UN orders," Singha was quoted in various Indian news outlets.

Singha said the Filipinos also endangered the lives of the 45 Fijian peacekeepers who were taken hostage by the Syrian rebels. 

"The non-professional actions of the Filipino troops have endangered the lives of the Fijian soldiers. They have defied orders at a time when we had negotiated a ceasefire with the rebels to ensure that all troops in the conflict area could exit," Singha added.

The Philippine military has questioned Singha for using the Filipinos as "sacrificial pawns" to save the Fijians. Catapang said Singha should have extracted the Filipinos first, and the Philippine peacekeepers would later help rescue the Fijians. 

Risks of surrender

Caught in the middle of the blame game is the UN, which has backed Singha and denied there was an order to for the Filipinos to surrender their weapons. UN Under Secretary for Peacekeeping Operations Herves Ladsous said the order was “not to shoot.” 

The Philippines said Singha verbally issued the order to surrender the weapons and supposedly refused to put his order in writing. The new interviews with Singha and Tikoitoga back the narration of the Filipinos, however.

Surrendering weapons to rebels is risky, as UN experience shows.

In 1993, 10 Belgian peacekeepers who surrendered to the ethnic Hutu extremists in Rwanda were executed. They were members of UNAMIR, the UN Assistance for Rwanda. The Hutu militia is behind a genocide of about 800,000 people of the minority Tutsi community.

The UN peacekeepers' role in Rwanda during the genocide was questioned as the world body was accused of allowing the genocide by refusing to send in more troops to control the situation. Most of the UNAMIR troops were pulled out after the execution of the peacekeepers.

Singha, however, was confident of the talks with the Syrian rebels. A negotiated ceasefire would supposedly ensure that all troops could exit the conflict area. But the Filipinos claimed they monitored the rebels massing up after the 7-hour firefight and believed they would be "massacred" if they did not escape.

The crisis in Golan that started at 10 am Thursday, August 28, enters Week 2. The UN continues to demand for the unconditional release of the Fijian peacekeepers. Tikoitoga said there’s been a “lull” in the negotiation for their release, however.

The Al-Nusra Front earlier issued 3 demands: its deletion from the the UN terrorist list, compensation for 3 colleagues killed in firefights against peacekeepers, and humanitarian assistance for a town it dominates.

It is not clear if the 3 Syrian rebels were killed during the firefight with Filipinos. Syrian government forces also provided fire support to prevent the rebels from closing in the UN facility. 

Peacekeeping history

Fiji started deploying to Golan last year to replace troops of Croatia and Japan, which already decided to pull out as the internal conflict in Syria continues to deteriorate. Peacekeepers in Golan are tasked to monitor the 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria

While the Fijians are new in Golan, they have a long experience in peacekeeping operations in the "Middle East, notably with UNIFIL in Lebanon, with UNAMI in Iraq, and with the Multinational Force in Sinai," according to the Fiji government.

The Philippines has been deploying to Golan since 2009 and has occupied high-level positions in the UNDOF Command.

Singha in fact succeeded Filipino Natalio Ecarma III, now a defense undersecretary who was present in the war room in Manila that approved movements of the Filipino troops in Golan.

Before the standoff, the Philippines decided to pull out the peacekeepers when their tour of duty ends in October. – Rappler.com