Thursday, August 15, 2013

UNIFIL feels the Syria squeeze

[Originally posted at NOW]

Recent developments, fuelled in part by Syria’s war, have renewed UN peacekeepers’ security concerns.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), established in 1978 with the aim of overseeing the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon and the maintenance of peace along the border thereafter, has perhaps inevitably never had the easiest work environment. Distrusted by both Lebanese militants and the Israeli army – which continued to occupy the south until 2000 – the Force’s troops have for decades been subject to occasional violent attacks from both sides of the Blue Line, incurring just under 300 casualties to date.

Since the 2006 war, when UNIFIL’s mandate became the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, the Force has enjoyed an unprecedented period of calm, with off-duty troops freely mingling with the local population in, for example, the various beach resorts of Tyre. However, recent developments, fuelled in part by the war in neighboring Syria, have put the organization under renewed strain.

First came the 29 July decision by the European Union to designate the so-called “military wing” of Hezbollah as a terror organization, a move which sparked a campaign of criticism and even threats against UNIFIL from various Hezbollah-affiliated circles. Thirteen of UNIFIL’s thirty-seven contributing nations are EU members.

Twelve days later came the news that Turkey would withdraw the vast majority of its UNIFIL contingent, announced one day after two Turkish Airlines pilots were kidnapped on Beirut’s airport road – the second abduction of Turkish citizens in Lebanon in thirteen months. Saturday’s kidnapping is thought to be related to the nine Lebanese hostages held in the Syrian town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, whose families accuse the Turkish government of preventing their relatives’ release. Turkey has since called on all its citizens in Lebanon to leave the country.

UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti asserted to NOW that Turkey’s decision to withdraw 240 of its roughly 300 troops was a routine procedure, unrelated to the recent kidnapping and indeed made prior to it.

“This was something that was discussed in detail last month. We received a cable from New York on 6 August, and we sent [a statement] out then, but most media did not pick it up,” said Tenenti. “This is a constant process, nations have certain troops reducing and others withdraw or increase their participation.” He added that there were no plans at present to replace the Turkish contingent.

However, former UNIFIL spokesperson Timur Goksel, himself a Turkish citizen, told NOW that security concerns were likely central to the decision.

“The main reason, although they haven’t officially announced it, is that Turkish soldiers in UNIFIL are not combat soldiers, they are a technical unit of engineers. And over the past months, because of increasing threats against UNIFIL and the Turks, these soldiers are spending most of their time in security-related functions, instead of doing their [usual] jobs. And they are feeling uncomfortable about this. As I said, these are technicians […] and they’ve done beautiful things for UNIFIL and for the public, building playgrounds and football grounds for children […] but now they worry more about security than doing their jobs.”

“Can you imagine, these soldiers come to Lebanon and leave without seeing Beirut because of security concerns? This is very disturbing. It wasn’t the case [previously], when we used to enable and encourage troops to travel all over Lebanon. Times have changed,” Goksel told NOW.

Which raises the question as to what might be the effects of the EU decision regarding Hezbollah. A report in May cited UNIFIL troops’ frustration at facing increased incidents of harassment and intimidation in the south, usually at the hands of Hezbollah. Following the EU’s announcement last month, media figures close to the Party such as Al-Akhbar editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin – said to be a personal friend of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah – issued thinly-veiled threats of “military” consequences for European members of UNIFIL, whom Amin said were now “operating behind enemy lines.” Similarly, a Hezbollah-affiliated mayor said, “People are not going to accept [UNIFIL troops] living among them and calling them terrorists,” although he denied there would be a violent response.

As far as Tenenti is concerned, such statements are no cause for concern. “There is a difference between rhetoric and reality. On the ground the situation is quiet, it’s calm, the security of our peacekeepers has not changed,” he told NOW.

Goksel largely concurred, though he said there were prospects of further petty harassment from locals.

“UNIFIL is a security asset for Hezbollah, and more than that it serves the people who are Hezbollah’s basic constituency. So Hezbollah is not taking a position against UNIFIL as such, but what UNIFIL countries fear is a possible reaction by local people who might think that if Hezbollah is angry with the EU, we must be angry with them too, and they might modify their attitude. They might be more negative, you might have youngsters blocking convoys and throwing stones and things like this.”

“There is no fear of an official reaction from Hezbollah. I mean if Hezbollah wanted they could make life miserable for UNIFIL, everyone knows that.”

No comments:

Post a Comment