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In Syria's Complicated War, U.N. Peacekeepers Become Pawns

U.N. peacekeepers cross a checkpoint in the Golan Heights on Friday. Syrian rebels seized 21 peacekeepers from the Philippines and are insisting that Syrian troops leave the area.
Jack Guez
AFP/Getty Images
U.N. peacekeepers cross a checkpoint in the Golan Heights on Friday. Syrian rebels seized 21 peacekeepers from the Philippines and are insisting that Syrian troops leave the area.

The Syrian civil war keeps getting more complicated, and the seizure of 21 United Nations peacekeepers has again raised concern that the fighting could spread turmoil in the region.

The rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's regime are a mixed lot that include secular fighters calling for democracy, as well as Muslim fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law.

A rebel faction calling itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigade says it seized the peacekeepers on Wednesday.

In a video that appeared the following day, armed gunmen demanded the retreat of Assad's forces from the Syrian town of Jamlah near the Golan Heights. The rebels had overrun several Syrian army checkpoints in the area and seemed to hope they could use the peacekeepers as leverage to get government forces to leave.

Another video released Thursday shows six of the Filipino hostages assuring their families in English that they were being treated well. But no breakthroughs were reported as of Friday evening.

All this has created a major headache for the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group. The coalition includes a wide range of factions and wants to persuade Syrians and the outside world that it is well-organized and could help rebuild the country if Assad's regime is toppled.

Mouaz al-Khatib, the head of the coalition, appeared on CNN on Thursday and acknowledged that the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigade were part of the Free Syria Army, the main rebel group fighting the government.

"The faction within the Syrian Free Army, which controls the peacekeepers, is called the Yarmouk Martyrs," Khatib said through an interpreter. "And this faction is totally abiding by the international laws, and they are only seeking freedom like the rest of the Syrian nation."

Khatib went on to tell CNN:

"What we have are not rebels. We have revolutionaries who have not kidnapped anyone. There was a group of peacekeepers in immediate danger. [They] took them out of harm's way."

"The revolutionaries are completely ready to turn in the peacekeepers to the United Nations under one condition: that the Red Cross should come and pick them up and also the Red Cross should evacuate the injured, innocent civilians. We have more than 150 injured innocent civilians who suffered injuries under this savage, barbaric bombardment."

U.N. peacekeepers have been serving in the Golan Heights since shortly after the 1973 Mideast war. In an extremely volatile region, the Golan Heights has been mostly calm despite its unresolved status.

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast war, and Syria has demanded its return.

Israel, which has sought to avoid direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, is keeping close watch on the Golan Heights to make sure the latest episode does not escalate into something larger.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nicole Beemsterboer is the Senior Producer of Investigations at NPR, where she oversees the conceptualization, development, and execution of the network's investigative reporting across all platforms and coordinates the team's internal and external news partnerships.