More than a year ago, a Philippine Marine general was appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as the force commander of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the disputed Golan Heights in southwestern Syria overlooking northern Israel.
For a better appreciation of the sensitive and delicate nature of this assignment, let me provide some historical background on the conflict between Israel and Syria, which led to Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.
On June 5, 1967, in what has come to be known as the Six-Day War, Israel launched a lightning air assault against Egypt with waves of Israel Air Force planes attacking and destroying some 285 enemy aircraft, most of which were caught on the ground. The brilliant air campaign showcased the superb discipline and training of its pilots and ground crew that allowed planes to return and quickly re-arm for succeeding sorties. The successful attack provided Israel with complete air superiority over the battlefield that led to other victories. Arab air losses including those of Jordan and Syria that had joined forces with Egypt in the war totaled some 450 aircraft. Israel lost 46 planes.
In a six-day period, Israeli forces captured the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank and the old city of Jerusalem. They then attacked and occupied the Golan Heights, a strategic vantage point located in Syria along the border between the two countries. With the conquest of these Heights, Israel then agreed to a ceasefire, complying with a UN resolution aimed at ending the conflict.
In 1974, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, when Syria attempted to retake the Heights, the United Nations decided to establish the UN Disengagement Observer Force. The
UNDOF consisted of troops from six contributing member countries—Austria, Canada, Croatia, India, Japan and the Philippines. Its mandate was to separate Israeli and Syrian military forces in the Golan Heights region and to establish a buffer zone between the two forces.
Last year, with the term of the former force commander coming to an end, the Philippines was asked to nominate a possible replacement. He would, however, compete with nominees from other nations. The name of Maj. Gen. Natalio Ecarma III was submitted by the Philippine government. As a result of a series of phone interviews with a UN selection committee, Ecarma was proposed for the job. UN Secretary General Moon then submitted his nomination to the Security Council for final approval. In March 2010, Ecarma took over as both force commander and head of mission of UNDOF with the rank of assistant secretary-general. Not all UN Peacekeeping Force (PKF) commanders are concurrently designated as heads of mission. Of the 16 current PKF chiefs worldwide, only three carry the added title head of mission. The other two are the force commanders in Lebanon and Jerusalem. The last Filipino force commander was Lt. Gen. Jaime de los Santos, who headed UN Forces in East Timor and later served as commanding general, Philippine Army.
The present UNDOF consists of 1,047 peacekeepers with a supporting civilian staff of 150. Of the peacekeeping force, 348 are Filipino troopers under Lt. Col. Cornelio Valencia.
Maj. Gen. Natalio “Boying” Ecarma III, PMA Class ’81, comes from a distinguished line of military leaders on both sides of his family. His grandfather, Col. Natalio Ecarma Sr., graduated from the Philippine Constabulary Academy Class ’23, while his dad Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Ecarma retired as chief of air staff, Philippine Air Force. An uncle, Lt. Natalio Ecarma Jr., a member of PAF Flying School Class ’51-A, was a fighter pilot flying Mustangs (P-51) out of Basa Air Base in the 1950s. He perished during an air strike against Huks in Zambales in 1952.
On his mother’s side, Ecarma is a grandson of the late Sen. Tomas Cabili of Iligan, Lanao province (now Lanao del Norte). A hero of the guerrilla resistance movement during the Japanese occupation in World War II, Cabili also served as secretary of defense under President Sergio Osmeña. He would die along with President Ramon Magsaysay in a plane crash on March 17, 1957 at Mt. Manunggal, Cebu.
Prior to his UN assignment, Ecarma served as deputy commandant, Philippine Marines and commander, Marine Forces Southern Philippines. Earlier, he was head of the 3rd Marine Brigade based in Jolo, Sulu, where he was successful in establishing excellent rapport with all sectors of the community. A “Bridging Leadership” fellow of the Asian Institute of Management, Ecarma focused mainly on mass-based projects aimed at empowerment of the people. It was this experience in Mindanao that provided the foundation for an impressive stint at the United Nations.
Ecarma officially retired from the AFP last June 3; however, on the request of UN officials, President Aquino extended his tour of duty, in order to allow him to complete a two-year term with UNDOF. He was recalled and placed on active status as a naval reservist. From the look of things, continuing service at the United Nations is not far-fetched. The Filipino people can be proud of Ecarma’s leadership and contribution to regional peace and stability in one of the flash points of the Middle East.
Personal note: Ecarma is my godson in marriage. His mother, Evelyn Cabili, and my wife were high school classmates at St. Theresa’s College.
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Philippine National Police Chief Supt. George Regis is the new director of the Quezon City Police District. A member of PMA Class ’80, George is the son of retired Brig. Gen. Prudencio Regis and nephew of the late Lt. Leopoldo Regis, who also died along with Tomas Cabili and President Ramon Magsaysay in the 1957 tragedy. At the time of the crash, Regis, the first captain of PMA Class 1951, was serving as aide-de-camp to President Magsaysay.
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Attorney Siegfred B. Mison, a West Point graduate, Class ’87, and Ateneo Law Class ’96, was recently appointed associate commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration. A son of retired Lt. Gen. Salvador M. Mison of Fortune Tobacco, Fred originally entered the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City, but after summer camp (two months), he was selected to attend the US Military Academy. He resigned his Philippine Army commission shortly after passing the bar exams.
The new appointee is a younger brother of Col. Salvador Melchor B. Mison, currently commander of the 220th Airlift Wing of the Philippine Air Force. Prior to his appointment, Fred was a partner in the Malcolm Law firm together with Attorney Alex Lacson of “12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do to Help Our Country” fame.
Our congratulations and best wishes to all!
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