Updated: Jan 20, 2020
The Philippines will side with the United States, its long-time military ally, should Filipinos be harmed if fighting breaks out between the U.S. and Iran in the Middle East, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman said Tuesday.
Manila also said it was dispatching Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a former military general and special envoy to the Middle East, to meet with officials in the region to prepare for the possible repatriation of more than 7,000 Filipinos from Iraq and Iran.
In addition, more than 2 million Philippine citizens who work across the Middle East could be affected should war break out between Washington and Tehran, amid heightened tensions that have followed the assassination of a top Iranian general in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3.
“We will not be neutral,” Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said. “The president was very specific in saying last night that if the Filipinos are harmed, he will side with the Americans.”
President Duterte also instructed Abdullah Mamao, the country’s special envoy for concerns affecting Filipino migrants, to travel to Iran and Iraq to convey “his urgent desire and wish” that no compatriots be harmed, Panelo said.
“If they will harm the Filipinos, then the president will not sit idly and watch,” he said, without specifying whether the Philippine would deploy troops in case war broke out between longtime adversaries Iran and the United States.
Panelo said Filipinos might be targeted because the Philippines is a known ally of the U.S.
“If they kill Filipinos, do you want us to stay mum? They are fighting with America. They can do it to us because we are allied with the United States,” he said.
The Philippines and the U.S. are bound by a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which calls on each country to assist the other during instances of outside aggression or war. The treaty has not actually been tested, although the U.S. said last year that it was prepared to aid the Philippines in case of aggression by Beijing over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Pompeo: ‘We got it right’
Tensions have soared in recent days in the volatile Middle East, beginning with Washington accusing Iran-allied militiamen of killing an American contractor in Iraq.
That was followed by deadly U.S. airstrikes that targeted pro-Iranian fighters in Syria and Iraq, according to reports. The strikes led to violent anti-American demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last week.
Then on Friday, the U.S. killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and several other people in a drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport.
American officials justified targeting Soleimani for death, alleging that Iran was plotting attacks on Americans and U.S. interests, and that as the top commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iranian general had the blood of hundreds of U.S. servicemen on his hands. Washington has branded both the Quds Force and the corps as foreign terrorist organizations.
The Iraqi government criticized the U.S. for carrying out the assassination on its soil, alleging that Washington had not notified Baghdad ahead of time about the airstrike. On Tuesday, Iraq’s parliament voted to expel American troops, but U.S. President Donald Trump has since threatened to retaliate with sanctions against Baghdad if Iraq ordered American forces to pull out.
“It was the right decision. We got it right,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Washington on Tuesday, referring to the killing of Soleimani.
But while commenting on Tuesday for the first time on the drone attack that took out the Iranian general, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, described the strike as an “immoral act.”
“It is against the law,” the 94-year-old leader told reporters.
“I don’t care who is strong or who is weak,” he said. “If you do something that is not right, I think I have the right to speak out.”
However, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the president of neighboring Indonesia, had not yet commented publicly about the situation between Iran and the U.S.
On Monday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi summoned both the American and Iranian ambassadors to address Jakarta’s concerns about the rising tensions in the Middle East.
“We hope both sides would do their utmost to exercise self-restraint, so the escalation of conflict can be avoided,” Retno said, according to Antara, the state-run news service.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the U.S. embassies in Jakarta and Manila posted a security alert on their respective websites that warned American citizens in Indonesia and the Philippines to be vigilant for their safety there as a result of heightened tensions in the Middle East.
Cargo flights readied
In the Philippines as of Monday night, the military had prepared two of its cargo planes to ferry Filipinos in Iran and Iraq who wished to come home, the Department of National Defense said, adding that two cruise ships could be deployed if the need arose.
Jose Custodio, a military and defense analyst at the Manila-based think tank Institute for Policy, Strategy and Development Studies, said he foresaw fighting in Iraq.
“Most likely, we will have a lot military actions in Iraq. It’s still remains to be seen if Saudi Arabia or other countries, where there are large concentration of Filipinos, will be affected by whatever fighting that happened there,” Custodio said.
Ali Nufael in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.