For well over a year now, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been bombarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with undiplomatic statements, lending the impression that his sympathies lie with those seeking his demise.
So, why in the world would an armed opposition group in Syria seize a group of U.N. observers in the Golan Heights monitoring a nearly 40-year truce between Israel and Syria and using them as a bargaining chip in their fight against Assad?
In a statement released today, the "media office" of the obscure rebel Brigade Shuhada Yarmouk, said they had acted against the U.N. because they were providing humanitarian aid to "the criminal regime troops" operating in the area. "We condemn this low act," the statement said. "Why [isn’t] humanitarian aid delivered to the unarmed citizens instead of the criminal groups?" The group also posted a YouTube video showing the insurgents in front of large white truck with a U.N. insignia, vowing to hold the U.N. peacekeepers as hostages until Syrian government forces withdrew from contest.
The group’s action was denounced by the Free Syrian Army’s political and media coordinator, Louay al-Mokdad. "We are not responsible for this, and we are in communication with all our groups to figure out who this group is and to try to solve it as soon as we can," Mokdad said, according to the Washington Post. "This is not the right action to take. We should protect the U.N. soldiers." U.N. officials said they suspect the captors are comprised primarily of armed Palestinian refugees loosely allied with the Syrian insurgency.
It was impossible to verify the armed abductors’ claims and the U.N. provided scant public detail on what had been unfolding in the area in the days and weeks leading up to today’s abduction of about 20 armed U.N. blue helmets from the Philippines.
Diplomatic sources say that U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi‘s Damascus-based deputy, Mokhtar Lamani,is trying to negotiate their release through his rebel contacts in Syria.
The U.N.’s humanitarian operations in Syria have come under scrutiny in recent months as aid agencies have faulted them for channeling a disproportionate amount of aid to government-controlled areas, leaving rebel-controlled territory wanting.
The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has countered that any limitation on their assistance to rebel-held areas was the result of fighting or the Syrian government’s refusal to allow aid workers access to the region.
"Our aid," said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, "goes basically to civilians; it doesn’t go to fighting forces." Haq added that the abducted U.N. peacekeepers were charged with monitoring a cease-fire along a demilitarized zone separating Syrian and Israeli forces, not distributing humanitarian aid.
But an official confirmed to Turtle Bay that the U.N. mission in the Golan had provided some medical treatment to both government forces and insurgents who were in danger of dying from their wounds.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, was established in 1974 to monitor a demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Over the years, it has attracted little international attention.
But the Syrian civil war has increased tensions along the line of separation, raising concern that the conflict could spill into Israel. A month ago, a U.N. advisor went missing in the Golan Heights, and he has not yet been released. The U.N. also reported today that nearby fighting between rebels and the Syrian army over the weekend forced U.N. observers to evacuate an observation post, which was damaged during the fight.
Officials in New York said that the U.N. observers have faced increasing harassment in recent months from insurgents operating in the region.
The troubles began last year when Sunni residents of the town of Jabata and another nearby village took up arms against Syrian loyalists, according to a U.N. official.
Since then, a motley coalition of Syrian and foreign fighters — including members of the Free Syrian Army, the Al Nusra Front, and armed Palestinians — have come to their aid. "The opposition forces have taken advantage of the separation zone," said an official. "They have used it as a kind of sanctuary."
In New York, a U.N. spokesman, Eduardo del Buey, confirmed that "approximately 30 armed fighters stopped and detained a group of around 20 peacekeepers." He said that the U.N. observer force in the Golan Heights "is dispatching a team to assess the situation and attempt a resolution."
Del Buey said that the observers were carrying out a regular supply mission when they were stopped near an U.N. observation post near the town of Al Jamlah, which had been the site of heavy fighting between the Syrian government and rebels.
If there was any positive to take away from today’s action, it’s that it succeeded in uniting the 15-nation Security Council around a crisis that has more often exposed deep rifts between the key powers. Led by Russia, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning the abduction of U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights, and demanding their "unconditional and immediate" release.
Following the vote, Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, who is serving as Security Council president this month, condemned the armed hostage takers.
"This particular case is particularly unacceptable and bizarre in that UNDOF are unarmed and they have nothing to do with the situation in Syria — they’re on a completely different mission," Churkin said. "It seems that lately some people are trying very hard to extend the geography of the Syrian conflict. Somebody is trying very hard to blow this conflict up."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch