August 24, 2020 | Newsweek

Terminate the UN Interim Force in Lebanon

August 24, 2020 | Newsweek

Terminate the UN Interim Force in Lebanon

President Donald Trump recently announced his decision to invoke the so-called “snapback” mechanism at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to re-impose UN sanctions and restrictions on Iran, in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2231. The decision to proceed with the snapback mechanism came after European allies and other members of the Security Council failed to back a U.S. proposal to extend the arms embargo on Iran. A battle is looming.

The administration will face another important battle later this month, when the Security Council meets to decide on renewing the peacekeeping mission of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). This annual meeting has become a ritual where the failures of the mission are recounted and its mandate is nevertheless renewed.

This year’s gathering comes on the heels of an attempted attack against Israel by the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah, the dominant force behind the Lebanese government. The massive explosion at the Beirut port on August 4 will also influence the discussion. However, the Trump administration should not allow this tragic incident to change its priorities or obscure the fact that UNIFIL has been an abject failure.

UNIFIL was established in 1978, following Israel’s operation against Palestinian terrorists in southern Lebanon. It was dramatically enlarged in 2006, after a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in July of that year. It now numbers over 10,000 troops hailing from 45 contributing countries. The force includes a maritime task force (MTF) in support of the Lebanese Navy. UNIFIL also has a large civilian staff of about 900 employees, both international and local. UNIFIL’s annual budget is around $512 million, of which the U.S. contributes some $145 million on average—roughly 28 percent. Over the past seven years alone, the U.S. has spent over $1 billion on UNIFIL.

The reason for having this bloated force, spelled out in UNSCR 1701, was to assist the Lebanese government and its armed forces (LAF) in implementing resolutions “that require the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon.” Also, it would accompany the LAF in the country’s south to ensure this area was “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL.” The MTF, meanwhile, is supposed to help ensure no arms and related materiel enter Lebanon, either illegally or by sea. UNSCR 1701 also authorizes UNIFIL “to take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces…to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind,” as well as “to resist attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties.”

By all of those metrics, UNIFIL has been a total failure. Over the previous decade and a half of its deployment, UNIFIL has not achieved a single one of the objectives outlined in UNSCR 1701.

Let’s start with the more recent flagrant failures. In July, a Hezbollah cell infiltrated Israel from the area that UNIFIL is mandated to keep free of any armed personnel. The attack was thwarted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). But that wasn’t the worst recent failure. In December 2018, the IDF uncovered a number of commando tunnels that Hezbollah dug into Israel, right under UNIFIL’s nose. To this day, UNIFIL has not been able to inspect all the relevant sites for this activity.

It gets worse. The year before, in 2017, Israel filed a complaint with the Security Council in which it proved that Hezbollah had set up observation outposts along the border under the cover of an environmental group called Green Without Borders. The UN rejected the complaint, stating that while UNIFIL had indeed observed the group’s activities, it saw nothing in violation of UNSCR 1701. These posts continue to give Hezbollah the ability to cross the border and mount operations like the one it attempted in July. Also in 2017, UNIFIL did nothing as the LAF chaperoned a Hezbollah media tour along the Blue Line, where armed Hezbollah fighters posed for pictures.

Hezbollah’s arms build-up has multiplied several-fold since 2006. It’s no wonder. The MTF has referred 14,381 vessels to the Lebanese authorities since 2006 for further inspections. Miraculously, not one arms shipment was ever discovered or interdicted.

UNIFIL, meanwhile, has also been unable to protect its own troops. Almost from the beginning of their deployment, UNIFIL soldiers have come under attack by Hezbollah. In 2018, a clearly coordinated attack was caught on video. These attacks occur whenever Hezbollah wishes to convey a message. They also lay the predicate for Hezbollah threats to the troop-contributing countries to ensure the pro-Hezbollah status quo remains intact. Hence, every year, leading up to the renewal date of UNIFIL’s mandate, pro-Hezbollah media publish open threats, reminding European countries, in particular, of their troops’ vulnerability should they alter the mandate.

These attacks and threats curtail the mission’s patrols and freedom of movement. Officers who served in the force have spoken candidly about this. They described restricted independent action and inability to enter certain villages, as well as gross inertia at the command level, which prefers not to rock the boat. Moreover, whenever UNIFIL has detected military activity near the Blue Line, a former liaison officer with the force divulged how the LAF has prevented UNIFIL from posting observers. At night, UNIFIL troops don’t venture out of their barracks, a French officer revealed, as the Lebanese forces are not in favor of it.

Former officers have also revealed how UNIFIL is infiltrated by Hezbollah. The civilian staff includes Lebanese employees who don’t hide their affiliation with Hezbollah, according to a commander from the Finnish contingent. Moreover, a senior official in the force asserted that Indonesian troops report on Israeli movements “to various Lebanese actors.”

UNIFIL is now effectively another UN aid agency. The mission highlights its work with the local population and its delivery of assistance, as recently as the COVID-19 crisis, to municipalities often run by Hezbollah.

For the last three years, the U.S. has endeavored to address these failures by attempting to beef up UNIFIL’s mandate. Predictably, this approach has failed. In the end, it’s not only that the Russians and the Chinese—the latter of which contributes troops to the force—have opposed changes to the mandate. It’s also that the French, who contribute one of the larger contingents, are routinely threatened by pro-Hezbollah media. Moreover, the French are invested in the status quo for other reasons that have to do with their perceived diplomatic role and financial investment in Lebanon, as well as their broader regional agenda.

The Trump administration is now pushing for UNIFIL to operate without any restrictions, and to be able to inspect all sites, including so-called “private property.” But U.S. officials reportedly are also looking to reduce the size of the force, and to shorten the mandate’s extension period from one year to six months.

This is all very reasonable, given UNIFIL’s track record. But if the Security Council members reject these modest requests, the administration is prepared to veto the renewal of the mandate altogether, leading to the dissolution of the force.

The main obstacle to the U.S. effort is France. Not only are the French opposed to a reduction in size, but they appear not to take seriously the U.S. threat to veto, believing it to be a mere bluff and a negotiating tactic. They are poised to oppose the U.S. changes, or to agree only to a watered-down compromise.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has floated recommendations for a “more agile and mobile” force, which would replace heavy infantry functions with “high-mobility light tactical vehicles and reconnaissance vehicles with improved monitoring capacity.” However, Guterres’ recommendations assume the continuity of deployment and, in fact, more investment in the force.

Needless to say, none of this, including the administration’s timid request, offers any improvement or remedy to the mission’s systemic failure. An inherent flaw in UNIFIL’s mandate lies in its requirement to coordinate with the Lebanese authorities. This renders UNIFIL’s work dependent on Hezbollah’s acquiescence. Even should the U.S. extract a concession for the force to inspect sites, the structural flaws will remain. So will the aversion of troop-contributing countries to adopt a more aggressive posture, for fear of retaliation.

European countries, especially, are now using the devastation from the explosion at the Beirut port, as well as the country’s financial crisis, to reject changes to the mission. “It is clear that UNIFIL will not be able to do more with less. We therefore fully support UNIFIL in its current mandate and strength,” Germany’s deputy ambassador to the UN recently said.

The U.S. therefore would do well to veto the renewal of the mandate. The American taxpayer should not be paying for an ineffectual bloated force. If anything, in this case, taxpayer dollars are subsidizing the equities of other countries, such as France. In terms of the U.S. interest—preventing Hezbollah military activities and re-armament—UNIFIL is, structurally, useless.

Not even UNIFIL’s liaison function, the tripartite committee with the IDF and the LAF, is of any special value. First, such a function requires a staff of no more than a dozen people. And second, this is a function that could be transferred to the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon—not a swollen half-billion dollar agency.

The U.S. should pursue its interests. In Lebanon, that means pulling the plug on the failed UNIFIL mission and vetoing the renewal of its mandate, which has never been fulfilled.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense for Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay.

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Hezbollah International Organizations Israel Lebanon