Last month, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2373, renewing the mandate of UNIFIL for another year. In a statement following the vote, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley rightly commented that “the status quo for UNIFIL was not acceptable, and we did not accept it.” However, nobody else at the Security Council is interested in altering this status quo. Unfortunately, the new resolution doesn’t change it either.
In the lead-up to the vote, the United States sharply criticized UNIFIL’s failure to prevent Hezbollah’s arms build-up and its nonchalance toward the Iranian-backed group’s other violations of UNSCR 1701. Ambassador Haley rightly said the force was “not doing its job effectively.” She didn’t mince words, describing UNIFIL’s head of mission, Maj. Gen. Michael Beary, as “blind” and lacking “understanding of what’s going on around him” for saying there were no Hezbollah weapons in south Lebanon.
Based on this assessment, Ambassador Haley had announced the US would seek “significant improvements” to UNIFIL’s mandate. “We share the secretary-general’s strong desire to enhance UNIFIL’s efforts to prevent the spread of illegal arms in southern Lebanon,” Haley said in a statement.
For Hezbollah, changing the current mandate was out of the question. Specifically, the group drew a red line around the requirement for UNIFIL to act solely “in support of a request from the Government of Lebanon,” and to “assist it to exercise its authority,” as stated in UNSCR 1701. Hezbollah rejected any move beyond this formula, which would allow UNIFIL to bypass the required prior coordination with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
To drive its point home, Hezbollah put out a clear threat through one of its preferred conduits, Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of the Al-Akhbar daily, a mouthpiece for the group. In an editorial two days after Haley’s statement, al-Amin recalled the previous assaults on UNIFIL and issued an unmistakable warning: “As for the international forces themselves… it would be best for their countries to start conducting drills on how to counter ‘the wrath of the local residents.’”
Al-Amin was recalling the several incidents over the past decade where UNIFIL patrols were mysteriously bombed, or assaulted, mobbed and obstructed by supposedly impromptu crowds of “local residents” in south Lebanon’s villages. These incidents have served as clear messages to UNIFIL’s troop-contributing countries as to the parameters of their deployment which Hezbollah deems acceptable.
Sure enough, Hezbollah’s reminder found attentive ears. France, which contributes troops to the force, and whose troops were attacked in 2011, rejected any change to the mandate. And with Russia, which works closely with Hezbollah on the Syrian battlefield, reportedly threatening to veto the resolution if it so much as made an explicit reference the group, the whole effort at the Security Council was over before it even began.
The only available path at the UN was for the US to include some additional language within the reaffirmed existing mandate. Namely, that UNIFIL will continue to “assist the government of Lebanon at its request.” However, it is authorized, “as it deems within its capabilities,” to “resist attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties.” On this point, the resolution requests that the UN Secretary-General report to the Security Council on “the restrictions to UNIFIL’s freedom of movement… specific areas where UNIFIL does not access and on the reasons behind these restrictions,” and on violations of UNSCR 1701. It also requests the Secretary-General to “look at ways… to increase UNIFIL’s visible presence, including through patrols and inspections,” though, of course, all “within its existing mandate and capabilities.” And that’s about it; a lot of reporting.
Rather than jettison the demonstrably failed framework of the past decade, the resolution doubles down on it—and on the LAF. UNSCR 2373 lauds the “new strategic environment” which UNIFIL’s coordination with the LAF has established in southern Lebanon—one assumes this is not a reference to the three-fold increase in Hezbollah’s rocket stockpiles — and calls for increased such coordination.
Remarkably, in what should have been a condemnation of the failure of the LAF, with UNIFIL, in preventing Hezbollah’s build-up, the resolution adds an article urging further international support for the LAF. The support is specifically for “counter-terrorism”—which in practice means Sunni terrorism exclusively. In other words, support for the LAF to continue not doing anything about implementing UNSCR 1701.
The highlighted role of the LAF in the resolution only reaffirms the parameters which Hezbollah warned should not be crossed: UNIFIL can only operate in coordination with the LAF. In other words, the LAF will continue to function as a buffer, just as it has for the past decade, during which time Hezbollah miraculously tripled its stockpiles and expanded its military infrastructure in the south and across the country.
Hezbollah’s insistence on this buffer role for the LAF underscores its confidence in the military as well as its synergetic relationship with it. Israel has maintained that the LAF shields Hezbollah and that LAF liaison officers cooperate with the group in UNIFIL’s area of operations. Most recently, the Israelis singled out Lt. Col. Yahya al-Husseini, who headed the LAF Directorate of Intelligence office in Hasbayya in southeast Lebanon, and accused him of working with Hezbollah and transmitting information to the group.
Of course, the issue goes well beyond a single officer. For instance, the Directorate of Intelligence is known in Lebanon to work very closely with Hezbollah. More broadly, LAF officers, especially in sensitive positions and areas such as south Lebanon, are known and trusted by Hezbollah. In fact, the current head of the LAF was himself responsible for liaising with the UN monitors south of the Litani when he held that command. Meaning, Hezbollah knew him well and had confidence in him, without which, he would’ve never been appointed as LAF commander.
All of which undercuts the notion that the policy of supporting the LAF undermines Hezbollah somehow. Hezbollah is entrusting the LAF with the task of guarding its rear. And they have good reason for this trust. For four years following Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian theater, the LAF has done just that: protect Hezbollah’s flank. And let’s not forget it was the LAF itself which chaperoned Hezbollah on its media tour which Ambassador Haley cited in her op-ed as a flagrant violation of UNSCR 1701.
That is to say, the LAF is complicit, and its complicity is papered over entirely in the new resolution. UNIFIL, meanwhile, wants to avoid rocking the boat—which is exactly how the contributing countries want it. Therefore, UNIFIL’s head of mission actually does not lack understanding of what’s going on around him. Rather, he understands it all too well. UNIFIL’s blindness, which rightly outraged Ambassador Haley, is willful. Everyone in south Lebanon knows precisely what Hezbollah is doing.
This is why all everyone at the Security Council, except for the US, wanted was to make sure the resolution renewing UNIFIL’s mandate did nothing to fundamentally change this decade-old status quo.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.