The UN’s troubled Lebanon peacekeepers

The UN’s mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) marked its thirty-fifth anniversary last week (ironically, the first "I" in UNIFIL stands for Interim). With the Syria civil war raging next door, it’s been a traumatic time for UN peacekeeping efforts in the region, which include UNIFIL and the even older UNDOF mission (tasked with monitoring the disputed ...

The UN's mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) marked its thirty-fifth anniversary last week (ironically, the first "I" in UNIFIL stands for Interim). With the Syria civil war raging next door, it's been a traumatic time for UN peacekeeping efforts in the region, which include UNIFIL and the even older UNDOF mission (tasked with monitoring the disputed Golan Heights). Earlier this month, Syrian rebels seized 21 UNDOF personnel, holding them for four days. Meanwhile, there have been frequent reports of incursions along the thinly monitored Lebanon-Syria border. A few days ago, residents of southern Lebanon reportedly stripped some UNIFIL soldiers of their equipment. Richard Gowan looks at the increasingly troubled environment in which one of the UN's longest-serving peacekeeping missions operates:

In recent years, UNIFIL has played a useful role in facilitating communications between the Lebanese and Israeli armies. If tensions increase, the U.N. can at least try to continue to play this small role. To have a greater impact on the security situation, however, it might be necessary to reinforce the mission, adding some of the European units that have drifted away since 2006 and readying an over-the-horizon reserve to assist them in an all-out crisis. Turkey, which already has a contingent in the mission, could also play a useful part in this process. But any indication that UNIFIL was moving toward a more assertive footing could infuriate Hezbollah, shake the Lebanese government and panic some troop contributors.

For now, UNIFIL can act as a brake on any potential escalation in southern Lebanon, but its limits are clear. If any one of a number of players -- Hezbollah, Israel, anti-Assad forces in Syria or opponents of Hezbollah inside Lebanon -- decides to escalate, the U.N. can do relatively little to stop them. UNIFIL has weathered major storms in the past 35 years, and even if the situation in Lebanon deteriorates, the mission may still be there to pick up the pieces afterward. But the year ahead may test UNIFIL to its limits.

The UN’s mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) marked its thirty-fifth anniversary last week (ironically, the first "I" in UNIFIL stands for Interim). With the Syria civil war raging next door, it’s been a traumatic time for UN peacekeeping efforts in the region, which include UNIFIL and the even older UNDOF mission (tasked with monitoring the disputed Golan Heights). Earlier this month, Syrian rebels seized 21 UNDOF personnel, holding them for four days. Meanwhile, there have been frequent reports of incursions along the thinly monitored Lebanon-Syria border. A few days ago, residents of southern Lebanon reportedly stripped some UNIFIL soldiers of their equipment. Richard Gowan looks at the increasingly troubled environment in which one of the UN’s longest-serving peacekeeping missions operates:

In recent years, UNIFIL has played a useful role in facilitating communications between the Lebanese and Israeli armies. If tensions increase, the U.N. can at least try to continue to play this small role. To have a greater impact on the security situation, however, it might be necessary to reinforce the mission, adding some of the European units that have drifted away since 2006 and readying an over-the-horizon reserve to assist them in an all-out crisis. Turkey, which already has a contingent in the mission, could also play a useful part in this process. But any indication that UNIFIL was moving toward a more assertive footing could infuriate Hezbollah, shake the Lebanese government and panic some troop contributors.

For now, UNIFIL can act as a brake on any potential escalation in southern Lebanon, but its limits are clear. If any one of a number of players — Hezbollah, Israel, anti-Assad forces in Syria or opponents of Hezbollah inside Lebanon — decides to escalate, the U.N. can do relatively little to stop them. UNIFIL has weathered major storms in the past 35 years, and even if the situation in Lebanon deteriorates, the mission may still be there to pick up the pieces afterward. But the year ahead may test UNIFIL to its limits.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the seized peacekeepers as UNIMIL and, more broadly, conflated the UNIMIL and UNDOF missions. My thanks to a reader for catching the error.

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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