A minor drama just concluded in the Middle East.  A couple of days ago, Syrian rebels identified with the Nusra front, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, went up to a Fijian United Nations peacekeeping outpost on the Golan Heights and demanded their surrender.

The events began Thursday morning on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, an area divided between Israel and Syria.

Tikoitoga said three vehicles filled with about 150 armed rebels converged on the Fijian camp at about 7:30 a.m.

He said the rebels demanded the Fijian soldiers leave within 10 minutes and insisted they board the rebel vehicles. The Fijians were then taken by the rebels to an unknown location.

The Fijians were taken into Nusra’s custody and the action moved to positions 68 and 69 on the Golan heights ceasefire line, which was manned by a Philippine battalion.  The Nusra people made the same demand.  ’Give us your weapons and come with us.’  It was here that the Philippine commander made a crucial decision.

He refused.


Perhaps flustered by the refusal, Outposts 68 and 69 were invested by Nusra.  Thereafter events moved pretty quickly with most of the news coming the Camp Aguinaldo in the Philippines, rather than UN HQ.   The communiques at first conveyed the impression that there was no big deal.  But in the next few hours it was clear that wheels were turning.  Both 68 and 69 came under fire last night, but the morning brought news that the garrison of 69 was withdrawn into Israel covered by the Irish contingent, which was the quick reaction force of the UN on Golan.  The Israelis opened the border to let them through.

Tonight the Times of Israel says the garrison of 68 withdrew successfully as well.

After coming under rebel attack Saturday, the first group of 35 Filipino peacekeepers was successfully escorted out of UN encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armored vehicles, said Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang and other military officials.

Another group of 40 Filipino troops had remained trapped at another encampment, called Rwihana, by more than 100 gunmen who rammed the camp’s gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds after the Filipinos refused to surrender with their weapons and instead returned fire in self-defense, Philippine military officials said.

Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance at one point to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers from being overwhelmed by the rebels, said Col. Roberto Ancan, another Philippine military official, who helped monitor the tense Golan standoff and mobilize support for the besieged Filipinos.

The 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons from the Rwihana encampment under cover darkness overnight, traveling across the chilly hills for nearly two hours, before meeting up with other UN forces, which escorted them to safety early Sunday, Philippine officials said.

“Everyone is in a safe position. We left our (old) position but we brought all our arms,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala….

During the siege, the Philippine secretaries of defense and foreign affairs, along with the country’s top military brass, gathered in a crisis room at the military headquarters in the capital to muster support for the Filipino forces and help ensure their safety. The Syrian and Israeli governments provided support, Filipino military officials said without elaborating.

“We may call it the greatest escape,” Catapang said.

The UN line is clearly finished.  And the rebels are now rubbing up against Israel’s borders without a buffer.  The Fijians are still unaccounted for. In objective terms the situation is as grave as ever.  But the Philippine battalion’s outposts were not added to the bag of hostages.

Early in the crisis, one comment in Tagalog at a local news site summed up the strategy. “Laban muna bago pugot ulo“, a Tagalog phrase which literally means, “fight me first before you cut my head off.” It may be rendered more loosely as “death before decapitation”.

The Philippine brass are clearly jubilant as the photo at Times of Israel shows.

Nobody ever expects the Philippines to win battles in wartime. It is too weak and poor and disorganized for that. But the population demands of its army that they never be outfoxed. You might die, so long as you die in style. And if you make a fool of the enemy in the process then there is victory of a sort. This quality is called “gulang” in Tagalog.

Israel remembers its epic victory in the Golan Heights; the triumph of heroism over great odds. The Philippine battalion may not claim as much for victories are not won by retreats. But on the other hand, they still have their heads, and for that they may thank the fateful decision to risk death before decapitation.

Yet if victory there was none, they will remember, with fondness in the years to come the Battle of the Gulang Heights.

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