But is UNIFIL up to the task?
Early this week, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley said the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon needs to adopt a more proactive approach in combatting Hezbollah transgressions that violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. She announced that the United States will seek to strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate when the UNSC votes to renew UNIFIL’s presence in south Lebanon at the end of the month.
UNSCR 1701 prohibits Hezbollah from operating south of the Litani River, calls for the group’s disarmament and requires the Lebanese Armed Forces to secure its borders. UNSCR 1701 also broadened UNIFIL’s mandate to ensure compliance with previous applicable UN resolutions, prevent infiltration by armed groups and help the LAF exercise control over south Lebanon.
In 2006, the UN significantly bolstered UNIFIL to an authorized level of 15,000 troops. Currently, UNIFIL's force consists of a total of 10,520 peacekeepers from 41 troop-contributing countries. Nations contributing the largest contingents include Indonesia, Italy, India, Ghana, Nepal, Malaysia, France and Spain. Indonesia and Malaysia are rabidly anti-Israel, Muslim majority nations.
Currently, none of UNSCR 1701’s main provisions are being adhered to. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist organization operates with impunity throughout the country. All along Lebanon’s mountainous border with Syria, Hezbollah forces routinely and openly cross into Syria to fight alongside Assad regime soldiers, without challenge from the LAF and often with the LAF’s cooperation. Hezbollah has been operating in Syria since 2012 and currently maintains a force of about 8,000 troops there. They conduct military operations in conjunction with Iranian Quds Force operatives and other Iranian-backed proxy troops.
In the south, Hezbollah operatives brazenly conduct surveillance along the Blue Line –the border between Israel and Lebanon – barely attempting to conceal their activities by acting under the guise of a fake environmental NGO called “Green without Borders.” Hezbollah terrorists have been videotaped by the Israel Defense Forces climbing into outposts with cameras and video surveillance equipment pointing south. Affixed to the outposts are signs which state “Green without Borders.” A UNIFIL spokesperson was dismissive of Israel’s concerns, underscoring how utterly useless this force truly is in its current operating mode.
In early June, Haley visited Israel to get a firsthand assessment of the situation and toured portions of the Blue Line with Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and UNIFIL Commander Michael Beary. Beary naturally gave Haley an upbeat assessment of the situation drawing an instant challenge from Kochavi, who noted that the situation was serious and that Hezbollah was repeatedly violating UNSCR 1701. Kochavi also noted that UNIFIL troops remain passive in the face of blatant Hezbollah transgressions and do not enter the towns and villages where Hezbollah is known to operate.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah maintained a low profile in southern Lebanon to avoid further trouble with the IDF and UNIFIL but that situation gradually changed. With Iranian assistance, Hezbollah began to transform south Lebanon into a giant armament storage facility, placing rockets and ammunition in underground bunkers situated adjacent to civilian infrastructure and population centers and even storing military hardware and rocket launching platforms in civilian homes.
The LAF with UNIFIL’s assistance was supposed to prevent these nefarious activities but neither force showed any interest or inclination in doing so. On paper, the LAF’s 70,000 strong army and UNIFIL’s 10,500 strong peacekeeping forces outnumber Hezbollah by about 3 to 1 and the disparity is even greater considering that roughly 1/3 of Hezbollah’s strength is being sapped by the civil war in Syria. But numbers are deceiving.
Roughly 1/5 of UNIFIL’s forces come from Malaysia and Indonesia, two ardently anti-Israel Muslim countries that can hardly be relied upon to confront Hezbollah. The Indian, French, Spanish and Italian troops are well trained but their combined strength is just under 3,300, hardly sufficient for the difficult task of preventing infiltration and interdiction.
But the main problem lies with the LAF. UNIFIL’s role was to assist the LAF in operations aimed at restoring stability in the south and keeping armed groups out. It was never meant to supplant the LAF in this role. The LAF however, is at best ineffectual and incompetent, and at worst, complicit in Hezbollah’s maleficence.
The LAF is a dysfunctional microcosm of Lebanon’s demographic makeup and is divided along sectarian lines of Shia, Sunni and Christian, each with conflicting loyalties. During the Hezbollah-instigated disturbances that wracked Lebanon in 2008, the LAF remained neutral while Hezbollah asserted dominance over rival militias and factions.
But the LAF has steadily veered from being “neutral” to acting as an auxiliary force for Hezbollah in direct contravention of UNSCR 1701. The LAF has done nothing to prevent Hezbollah from freely moving in and out of Syria and in some instances, helped secure Hezbollah’s flanks and rearguard. Moreover, Lebanon’s current president and Hezbollah shill, Michel Aoun, has issued several public statements that directly contravene UNSCR 1701. For example, on February 4, 2017 he characterized Hezbollah as, “…an essential part of Lebanon’s defense.”
Aoun’s comments drew immediate rebuke from Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general who noted that “UN Security Council resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701 clearly call for the dissolution and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. Keeping arms in the hands of Hezbollah and other armed groups outside the state framework would limit Lebanon’s capacity to exercise its sovereignty and full authority over its geographical area.” Other Lebanese political figures condemned Aoun in even harsher terms with one dryly noting, “If Aoun believes that Hezbollah is able to protect Lebanon, why don’t we call on Hassan Nasrallah to move to Baabda?” Lebanon’s presidential palace is situated in Baabda.
It’s time to recognize that UNIFIL’s purpose has run its course. Without the LAF’s backing, UNIFIL’s mission, already difficult, becomes near impossible. The only way UNSCR 1701 can be fully implemented is if Lebanon decides to reassert its sovereignty and confronts Hezbollah but given Lebanon’s fragile political and demographic situation, that prospect is far from likely. The solution to Lebanon’s Hezbollah problem lies with robust action from outside forces. The United States, Israel, France, Britain and moderate Sunni Arab nations can play a constructive role in this endeavor.