Yesterday the United Nations issued a statement deploring the fact that 43 of its Golan Heights peacekeepers have been captured in the southwestern Syrian province of Quneitra, and that the movements of 81 other peacekeepers nearby have been “restricted.” The UN’s press release alluded only generally to the group holding the 43 UN troops:
During a period of increased fighting beginning yesterday between armed elements and Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation in the Golan Heights, 43 peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah. In addition, another 81 UNDOF peacekeepers are currently being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah. The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers, and to restore the full freedom of movement of the Force throughout its area of operation.
The few further details supplied by the UN included the facts that the 43 captured soldiers were Fijian, and that the 81 others were from the Philippines.
A UN spokesperson refused to identify the kidnappers:
We are dealing with nonstate armed actors…. The command and control of these groups is unclear. We’re not in a position to confirm who is holding whom. Some groups self-identified as being affiliated with Nusra, however, we are unable to confirm it.
A statement from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said only that the kidnappers were “armed elements of the opposition,” and called for the immediate release of the detained peacekeepers and the lifting of restrictions on the others.
It is highly likely that the peacekeepers have been seized by the al Qaeda’s Syrian Branch, the Al Nusrah Front, which with the assistance of other Islamist groups, including the Islamic Front, this week wrested control of the Quneitra border crossing in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights.
The Wall Street Journal describes the UN presence in the area as follows:
The demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights was established in the months after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The zone, as well as the crossing, is monitored by more than 1,200 U.N. peacekeepers from six countries. No other military forces are allowed in the area.
There was no evidence the Syrian rebels were attempting to infiltrate Israel. The Nusra Front and other Islamists already control swaths of territory along the cease-fire lines between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights, an Israeli spokesman said on Wednesday.
The UN’s reticence about the kidnappers’ identity may reflect the desire for a non-terrorist negotiating partner, such as the Islamic Front (which, although it frequently fights alongside Al Nusrah and has senior leaders who are linked to al Qaeda, has avoided a terrorist designation so far).
Incidentally, while the Islamic State has been dominating the headlines with its onslaughts in Iraq and Syria illustrated by a steady flow of decapitation videos, Al Nusrah has been conducting negotiations with the Lebanese government over the fate of 28 kidnapped Lebanese security forces. The Islamic State, which also holds some Lebanese hostages, is also involved in the negotiations.
It is important to keep in mind that Al Nusrah, which seems to be positioning itself as a ‘less violent’ and ‘more civilized’ actor than the Islamic State, remains a mortal foe of democratic forces everywhere. The use of kidnapping victims as pawns has long figured in al Qaeda’s playbook.