In a move that may give Israel a pretext to cross a United Nations buffer zone in Syria, a shadowy Syrian rebel group armed with weapons provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar has kidnapped 21 Filipino United Nation peacekeepers.
The peacekeepers are part of a force monitoring a cease-fire between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, an area of Syria occupied by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967. Israel and Syria are technically still at war. Israel removed Syrians from the Golan and began moving in Israel settlers in the 1970s. In 1980, the Israeli people voted to annex the Golan Heights.
“The UN observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity, at Al Jamlah,” the United Nations said in a statement released at its headquarters in New York.
The group, identifying itself as the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, said in a video (above) posted to Youtube, it will hold the United Nations soldiers until the Syrian government removes troops from the area.
On Thursday, the group fought battles with the Syrian army in the southern province of Daraa near the Golan Heights, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He said the fighting was occurring near the Syrian village of Jamlah where the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades Wednesday kidnapped the 21 U.N. peacekeepers from the Philippines.
“We demand a full retreat of all of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s forces from Jamlah and the Daraa province,” the rebel spokesman states in the video, according to a translation provided by the Israeli websites Israel Hayom and Yedioth Internet. “The Syrian military has been bombing the village relentlessly and those that are helping them are the U.N… If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners,”
“The Yarmouk Brigades, like many rebel fighting units, contain radical jihadists or members otherwise hostile to the non-Muslim states and those supportive of the Assad regime,” writes Daniel Nisman, who is an intelligence manager at a geopolitical risk consulting firm in Tel Aviv, Israel. “In the past, these groups have staged kidnappings or targeted foreign interests believed to be affiliated with the Assad regime, primarily from Iran, Lebanon, and Russia.”
The United Nations, however, has had a contentious relationship with the al-Assad regime.
According to the French news service AFP, Israel has expressed concern over the presence of the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades and other Syrian government opposition groups dominated by al-Qaeda in the area.
“This kidnapping is likely to convince countries which participate in this force to bring their troops home, which would undoubtedly create a dangerous vacuum in no man’s land on the Golan,” an anonymous Israeli official told AFP. “Since its creation, this force has fulfilled its mission which was to keep the peace.”
According to the Yedioth news website, the Israel Defense Force has “expressed concerns in the past year relating to the extremely dangerous nature of the Hauran area, some 3 kilometers from IDF posts. Rebels in the area are affiliated with Global Jihad and al-Qaeda who might be planning an infiltration into Israel.”
Israeli officials also said they are concerned the United Nations may abandon its mission in the Golan. “We certainly hope that the UN will keep its commitment to help keep the ceasefire in the Golan Heights. It’s been a cornerstone of regional peace since 1974,” an Israeli government official told The Times of Israel on Thursday.
It remains to be seen if Israel will use the latest development in the Golan Heights to push beyond the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force buffer zone established in 1971. Israel has repeatedly violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 intended to resolve the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict by entering the nation’s airspace and breaking sound barriers over villages in southern Lebanon. In addition, during the war, Israel attacked United Nations outposts in Lebanon on numerous occasions. In August of that year, the IDF shelled a United Nations Truce Supervision Organization patrol base in Khiyam, killing four peacekeepers.