Peacekeepers in a changing world

For many Filipinos, peacekeeping work for the United Nations may be just another form of overseas employment.  But, for the Philippine government that deploys its nationals to serve as peacekeepers in many conflict zones across the world, it is a noble mission, a fulfillment of an obligation, and a fundamental expression of commitment to the idea of a unified world society.  Danger, as we know, has never deterred the Filipino from working abroad.  But no government in its right mind will knowingly put its people in harm’s way without giving them the capability to protect themselves.

Mind-boggling changes in the world system are putting in question our basic assumptions about the nature and scope of UN peacekeeping.  The Philippine decision to withdraw its forces from the Golan Heights after they came under siege by rebel groups—telling them to defend themselves or leave their post at the first opportunity rather than heed the order of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) commander to surrender—only reflects the complex conditions that have arisen in the region since the advent of the Syrian civil war.

UN peacekeeping forces were first sent to the Golan Heights in 1974 to monitor ceasefire violations and maintain the buffer zone separating Israel from Syria. The ceasefire ended the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and the Arab states.  Apart from supervising the buffer zone and reporting ceasefire violations, the UN contingent marks minefields in the disputed territories, and conducts regular inspections of the Israeli and Syrian military forces in the area. Similar provisions for a UN observer force also exist on the Egyptian side.

No major problems were encountered for most of the last 40 years that the ceasefire agreement had been in place.  But things began to rapidly change when the Syrian Uprising against the dictatorial regime of President Bashar al-Assad exploded in the spring of 2011.  Much of the democratic world supported the uprising, which began in the form of mass protests echoing the libertarian voices of the Arab Spring that was then sweeping across the entire Arab world.  But, unlike Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Gadhafi, who were overthrown, Syria’s Assad has resisted powerful pressures for him to step down.

The United States lent support to the Free Syrian Army that spearheaded the armed uprising.  Russia took the side of Assad, and so did Iran and the Shia-Islamist Hezbollah in nearby Lebanon.  Turkey joined the other Sunni-dominated countries in the effort to bring down the Assad regime that is identified with the ruling minority, the Alawite sect, a largely secularist group with close links to Shiite Muslims. This complex tapestry of religious and ethnic loyalties became even more intractable with the entry of militant jihadists from all over the world.  Their objective is not just to bring down Assad but to establish an Islamic caliphate in the whole region, beginning with Iraq and Syria.

These Islamic fighters, originally part of the al-Qaida network, have virtually taken over the war against the Syrian regime.  Notorious for the brutal beheadings it carries out on its enemies, one group calls itself the Islamic State (IS).  Alongside them is the al-Nusra, which also sprang from al-Qaida, but, unlike the IS, it has kept its affinity with al-Qaida.  In the struggle for supremacy, these two groups have pointed their weapons at each other.  The Nusra militants hit the news recently after they claimed responsibility for the abduction of UN peacekeepers from Fiji, and demanded the surrender of the Filipino peacekeepers as a condition for the release of the Fijians.

Unlike the Syrian Army they are fighting, the jihadists are not components of any state; they exist beyond the reach of the UN.  They are fighting Assad, but they are also fighting their long-term enemy, Israel.  They are not bound by the ceasefire agreement between Syria and Israel. Assad himself feels no responsibility for any incursions these rebel forces may commit against Israel.  Indeed, the complications created by the foreign jihadists who have turned his country into a vast battlefield and training ground for global terrorists suggest that overthrowing Assad at this time may have become the least of the world’s concerns.

The map of the Middle East is clearly being redrawn.  The old boundaries established by Europe’s colonial powers are being erased. The secular regimes that came to power in the post-colonial era by drawing on nationalist impulses are coming down one-by-one.  With globalization, nation-states gradually lose their ability to steer their societies.  Finding nationality increasingly irrelevant and unresponsive to their needs, their citizens seek other sources of identity, and it is to this quest that religious fundamentalism has effectively responded.  This is how al-Qaida and the Islamic State recruit adherents across national borders—by offering them an entirely new vision of life in a world that has shed off its familiar coherence.

It is this new reality that the United Nations seems unable to grasp.  The world has sprung new players without nation-state affiliations, who cannot be made accountable by merely calling on the governments of the countries from which they may happen to be operating.  Their presence on the world stage, plus their ability to play off nation-states against one another, has undermined the unity that has been the basis of the United Nations’ authority to take legitimate action on behalf of humanity.  The erosion of that unity can only be experienced as a loss of order.