x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Kidnappers of UN troops do not act on behalf of Syrian rebels

Kidnapping UN peacekeepers from the Syria-Israel border was a stupid and damaging mistake by one element of the Syrian opposition.

It was, by all appearances, an act of epic stupidity. A band of Syrian rebels seized 21 unarmed UN peacekeepers - all Philippines nationals - near the occupied Golan Heights. The video that was released on Wednesday showed armed rebels blustering at the camera in a show of petty tyranny.

There is no conceivable tactical advantage to this kidnapping. The kidnappers, who call themselves the "Martyrs of Yarmouk", at first claimed the UN peacekeepers had helped Syrian regime forces to seize a nearby village. This is sheer nonsense. But as of yesterday, the kidnappers were insisting that they would hold the peacekeepers until Syrian tanks and troops withdraw from the area. The regime in Damascus, of course, would like nothing better than that the kidnappers would harm unarmed UN personnel - and further tar themselves as irresponsible and dangerous thugs.

The incident plays far too easily into the hands of the Assad regime and its allies. Moscow, which still appears to be wedded to its blood-soaked alliance with Damascus, immediately went for the jugular, with its UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin calling it an act of "sick imagination to try to harm those people".

Syria's opposition, and especially the splintered fighting units on the ground, are too vulnerable to such charges. Amid concern about extremism in the ranks, and hand-wringing about the lack of a command and control structure among an estimated 1,000 rebel fighting groups, the so-called Martyrs of Yarmouk seemed determine to play the role of thugs.

There were signs yesterday that an iota of common sense had returned, as the kidnappers tried to convince the world that the peacekeepers were "guests" being held about two kilometres from the ceasefire line from Israel. The Philippines government had joined the United Nations in working towards the peacekeepers' release and, perhaps most importantly, more responsible members of the Syrian opposition had begun dialogue.

The damage has been done however. The Syrian National Coalition, which assumed a chair at the Arab League on Wednesday, will have to distance itself from such groups, which only undermine the resistance. The rest of the world must remember that the so-called Martyrs represent no one but themselves. And the Free Syrian Army and its supporters must understand that the longer the disunity persists, the more their supposed allies will undermine them.