Author: Diego Salama
Chief Editor: Alanna O’Malley
Dossier: Mind the gap, UN Governance in perspective
The latest round of conflict between Israel and Hamas raised the spectre of the simmering conflict in the Middle East before the international community again. Whenever the situation escalates as it did in May 2021, analysts and politicians alike ask, “What is the UN doing about it?” The answer is that the UN is constantly working to resolve this conflict, albeit with mixed results.
The UN has three peacekeeping operations on the ground in the Middle East. The United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). They are some of the oldest peacekeeping operations. They serve as the UN’s primary tools to maintain peace in one of the world’s most challenging regions. However, the current surge of conflict between Hamas and Israel, serve as a good inflection point to ask to what extent are these operations a valuable tool of global governance.
Before delving into this question, it is essential to keep in mind that the rest of the UN System fundamentally supports the three peacekeeping operations. From the peacebuilding front, the Office of Special Coordinator for the Middle East Process (UNSCO) is the focal point of political and diplomatic work. UNSCO serves as the Secretary-General’s eyes and ears to build strategic partnerships and long-term relationships with key players and reports back to the Security Council. From the Sustainable Development front, the UN has Country Teams (UNCTs) in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. Led by a Resident Coordinator, the UNCTs align and streamline many other UN agencies working on the ground.
Therefore, it is fair to say the UN’s presence in the region is quite robust. Yet, the operation’s presence reminds us of the continuous security challenges that require military personnel on the ground. Therefore, even though the three operations collaborate at the political and operational level, their record and utility must be analysed on a case-by-case basis.
UNTSO: The Unsung Hero
UNTSO’s is as old as the State of Israel. The Security Council deployed it to serve as a mechanism to monitor the Israel-Arab Armistice Agreements. While the numerous wars fought between 1948 to today could point to the operation’s inefficacy, in reality, it is quite the opposite.
Its institutional memory, vast network and existing relationships with government actors across the board proved to be incredibly useful. UNTSO works as a mediator between hostile parties and aims to help prevent the escalation of conflicts. Therefore, its successes are not necessarily public because the type of mediation work required in the region is often quiet and out of public view.
In addition, UNTSO effectively served as the UN’s rapid response mechanism for the region. The Security Council redeployed its observers to the Golan Heights and the Israel-Lebanon border right after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 to fill the security vacuum whilst planning for the operations. Furthermore, UNTSO continues to support UNDOF and UNIFIL by way of embedding its military observers within them. Overall, the operation continues to be an instrumental tool for the UN and arguably one of the only operations whose longevity signals success rather than failure.
UNDOF: Stuck Between a Rock and an Old Mandate
The Security Council authorised UNDOF’s deployment in May 1974 to monitor the separation area outlined in the post-war agreement. The operation has around 1,000 military and 150 civilian staff. For many years, this buffer kept the Israel-Syria border relatively quiet. Unfortunately, the Syrian civil war changed everything. The increased presence of terrorist organisations in the Golan Heights, the almost total loss of control of the Syrian authorities of the area, brought the operation it is knees. The war forced UNDOF to withdraw into Israel at one point to ensure the safety of the peacekeepers. While the situation is improving for the operation, it continues to face critical challenges.
UNDOF remains on the ground for two reasons. First, its presence seems to be one of the only things the Security Council agrees upon vis-à-vis Syria. Second, Russia and the United States continue to support the operation. Continuity does not mean adaptation; UNDOF is stuck with an old mandate to deter conventional warfare when conflicts involving states and non-state actors are the new normal. UNDOF, much like UNIFIL, is not adequately equipped to defend itself against terrorist threats, let alone deter them from breaching its area of operations.
Second, both Israel and Syria continue to support their presence. While neither side fully trusts the operation nor expects it to deter conflict entirely, they believe the operation adds value. As Assaf Orion of the Institute of National Security Studies comments, both sides see UNDOF as a “reliable channel of communication between Israel and the Assad regime – a channel that helps prevent deliberate or incidental cross-border fire from leading to escalation.”
UNIFIL: A Convectional Operation Working in an Unconventional Terrain
Out of the three operations, UNIFIL is the most robust in terms of both personnel and mandate. The operation was on the ground from 1978 to confirm Israel’s withdrawal of Southern Lebanon. After the 2006 war, the Security Council enhanced its mandate and increased the troops on the ground. Currently, UNIFIL has around 10,000 military and 800 civilian staff. It patrols the line of withdrawal (The Blue Line) with ground and maritime assets. In addition, UNIFIL provides humanitarian assistance to the civilian population. Unfortunately, tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border remain high. As a result, UNIFIL cannot keep Hezbollah from de facto controlling Southern Lebanon, continuously moving military assets to the border. Moreover, since the 2006 war, there have been multiple skirmishes, which the operation could not prevent.
UNIFIL does not have the political capital to prevent Hezbollah from controlling its area of operation. The Security Council will not give the operation the mandate to deal with Hezbollah directly, and while they are well equipped, they will never engage them. As Elliot Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, “there is no evidence that UNIFIL intimidates, blocks, or deters Hezbollah”. UNIFIL’s benefit revolves around preventing Hezbollah from absolute control over southern Lebanon with zero accountability. The Lebanese government needs to project, even if cosmetically, that it seeks to exert control over the area; that is why they continue to agree to host UNIFIL. In addition, the operation’s large number of troops do create a buffer between the parties.
Israel and its neighbours continue to support the extension of the operation’s mandates partly because they continue to be the reliable interlocutor between the warring states. In addition, the operations continue to serve their national interests. At the very least, Lebanon needs to show its intention to control Southern Lebanon and have a buffer, which would limit the risk of another destructive war such as the fighting in 2006. Syria needs to display that it does control its territory and supports the extension of UNDOF to keep up with appearances. Israel supports the renewal of their mandates because it sees value in having communication lines with its neighbours. While it has zero trust in them regarding military matters, they know that protesting their presence would bear too high of a political cost.
The Security Council continues to authorise their mandates because the operations reporting and presence continues to add value. Even if they are not entirely achieving their objectives, the Council believes the situation is better off with the operations on the ground.
If we evaluate their effectiveness, we have to conclude they have a mixed record, at best. The interesting question is, why? The Security Council’s expectations did not match the mandate they gave the operations. They are not equipped to solve the Israel-Arab conflict; they certainly did not receive a strong enough mandate. They can promote stability and reduce the likelihood of hostilities. That is about all they can do. If the parties engage each other violently as they did a few weeks ago, the operations cannot do anything about it. It is fundamental to use the proper benchmarks to evaluate them and understand that their effectiveness is not entirely up to their capacities but the regional dynamics and the politics of the Security Council, which continue to prove obstructive rather than constructive.
Diego Salama is a PhD Candidate in History of International Relations at Leiden University. His research focuses on the history of the United Nations and Peacekeeping.