On August 30th the UN Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) for a year. UN Security Council members expressed serious concerns, according to VOANews.com,“that violations of the cease-fire agreement between Lebanon and Israel could lead to a new conflict and urged international support for Lebanon’s armed forces and their stepped up deployment in the south and at sea.”
Rodney Hunter, the USUN Mission’s political coordinator, told the UN Security Council during its meeting that twelve years after the council imposed an arms embargo “it is unacceptable that Hezbollah continues to flout this embargo, Lebanon’s sovereignty, and the will of the majority of Lebanese people.”
The centerpiece of UNIFIL’s mandate is UNSC Resolution 1701, which limits the flow of arms into the southern region of Lebanon, provides for routine meetings between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) brokered by UNIFIL (the only direct contact between Lebanon and Israel), calls for disarming the area south of the Litani River, and assists the LAF forces in providing security throughout south Lebanon.
Following a visit with UNIFIL in its Beirut office in July, we heard a different story about claims of Hezbollah’s armed infiltration in southern Lebanon from those expressed during the UN renewal. Our UNIFIL briefer said that it conducts 14,000 patrols a month with fully deployed Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) using its 10,000-person force drawn from more than 40 countries. They state that they have not found any strategic weapons or large arms caches in the geographical area of their mandate or border infractions, other than hunters with rifles and reports of shepherds in the area.
Statements that don’t distinguish between UNIFIL’s work along Israel’s border versus concerns with Hezbollah action in other parts of Lebanon can be misleading or worse, lead to a new conflict. Recognizing the potential for misunderstanding, the UN urged “all parties” to exercise “maximum calm and restraint and refrain from any action or rhetoric that could jeopardize the cessation of hostilities or destabilize the region.”
It is time for the Administration and Congress to make its own assessment in southern Lebanon. Congress and the Administration should conduct visits in the UNIFIL mandated area and fully assess actions on the ground with the objective to clarify and strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate and its support of the LAF. It must also distinguish between the actions of the UN and LAF in the south, under the UNIFIL mandate, from potential concerns in other parts of Lebanon. A clear assessment by the US, including accepting an invitation by UNIFIL to overfly suspected weapons, should be part of that assessment.
US military assistance is critical for the Lebanese Armed Forces growing role in the south in line with Resolution 1701; and efforts to undermine that bilateral relationship between the US and Lebanon only play into the hands of Russia, which has increased its pressure for a bilateral security relationship with Lebanon, something Lebanon has resisted to date.
Although not perfect, it appears that progress with the LAF and UNIFIL mandate is being made. Now is the time for the US to examine the situation with firsthand knowledge in order to advance US objectives in southern Lebanon, strengthen the LAF in its mission throughout the country and protect Lebanon’s territorial integrity from terrorism and outside interference.
Dutch UNIFIL base, 1981