Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 1 November 2020

US to face off with France over peacekeeper mission to Lebanon

The UN is preparing a report on the force’s capabilities ahead of a potential mandate change

Washington is putting more pressure on the United Nations to change the mandate of the organisation’s peacekeeping force in Lebanon before this year’s renewal in August.

The push has put the United States on a collision course with France, which has resisted previous American attempts to do so.

The US wants the number of troops reduced as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, which was first stationed in the country 42 years ago, has been prevented from carrying out patrols in areas in the southern parts of the country.

Washington also wants to introduce a time frame for Lebanese authorities to ensure Unifil is granted access to areas that need to be inspected.

Additionally, the US hopes to include language calling for more reports on the force’s ability to check the enforcement of UN resolutions, which forbid armed forces other than the Lebanese army and peacekeepers south of the Litani River.

Mohamed Khiari, UN Assistant Secretary General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, led a delegation to Beirut this week for meetings with President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti.

According to a senior diplomat, Mr Khiari was also expected to visit Unifil troops in the south as he prepares to compile a June report on the force that was requested when its mandate was renewed last August.

The diplomat told The National that the upcoming report “will be critical for Washington, which wants to use this [as justification] to decrease the number of Unifil troops”.

During Tuesday’s meeting with Mr Hitti, also attended by Unifil head Maj Gen Stefano Del Col, the Lebanese side told Mr Khiari that they hoped the mandate would be renewed with no change to the number of troops, role of the force or its budget, a senior Foreign Ministry source said.

The source said that it was a “smooth and very positive” meeting but also said some sides “try every year to change the mandate and they don’t succeed”.

The 15 UN Security Council members last year called on the secretary general “to provide an assessment, no later than June 1, 2020, of the continued relevance of Unifil’s resources and options for improving the efficiency and effectiveness between the mission and the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon.”

Mr Diab met with the UN delegation, that also included UN representative in Lebanon Jan Kubis, on Wednesday.

Discussions revolved around the role of Unifil in south Lebanon and ways to support its work and improve its capabilities, “in addition to mechanisms for maintaining stability along the Blue Line,” Mr Diab’s office said.

Unifil confirmed after the meeting that the UN delegation was in Lebanon to assess Unifil’s resources and options in line with the call of Security Council members last year, “taking into consideration the troop ceiling and the civilian component of Unifil”.

At the time, the US was vocal in its frustration with Unifil's inability to fully implement its mandate said Jonathan Cohen, former US ambassador to the UN.

Mr Cohen added that the “status quo” could not continue and said it was time “to re-examine troop strength and begin … a trajectory towards right-sizing” since Unifil troops are unable to gain access to all the areas they needed to inspect.

This was one year after Nikki Haley, ambassador to the UN at the time, reprimanded Maj Gen Michael Beary, head of Unifil then, accusing him of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s weapons and saying that he showed an embarrassing lack of understanding of the situation around him.

Both Israel and the US will continue their push to expand Unifil’s powers amid hopes this could prove effective in disarming the Iran-backed militia.

To maintain the peacekeeping force’s mandate, The National has learnt that France will step in and send a technical delegation to Lebanon next month to prepare for the June assessment.

Unifil had 10,300 military service members and another 800 civilian members as of last August.

It has proven effective in its main role of maintaining calm and stability along the Lebanese-Israeli border since its mandate was enhanced after the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 34-day war, increased troop numbers from about 2,000 to 15,000.

Although there have been a number of incidents, the situation has remained calm for the last 14 years – the longest period of peace in the area since the formation of Israel.

In previous years, France has spearheaded efforts to shoot down arguments that the force was ineffective and should be downsized.

Paris and Washington have not seen eye to eye in recent years regarding several conflicts across the Middle East, including the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

And while the US continues its maximum-pressure campaign on Iran and its proxies around the world, in Lebanon, Unifil troops have been repeatedly pelted with stones by alleged Hezbollah supporters while on patrol.

Unifil has also not been granted access to sites where alleged Hezbollah attack tunnels were found by Israeli forces at the end of 2018.

Unifil confirmed the existence of at least three of the tunnels from the Israeli side but was not allowed to inspect all the sites from the Lebanese side as they were told some were on private property.

As a result, Unifil called on the Lebanese authorities to investigate – something that was never done.

Despite the daily Israeli breaches of Lebanese territory, Beirut’s failure to fully exercise its authority in the area could result in the US forcing through the changes for Unifil this time around.

Updated: March 4, 2020 07:49 PM

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