The hunt for Hezbollah’s weapons and the limits of civil–military cooperation
20 Aug 2018|

On 9 August in South Lebanon, a routine patrol of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was attacked by civilians. In the course of the incident, their vehicles were set on fire and their weapons and equipment seized. The event was exceptional: UNIFIL rarely encounters this level of violence from the local population. But there’s more to the story than random civilian violence.

In an age in which obtaining local cooperation for foreign militaries is viewed as a useful, if not essential, part of a successful peacekeeping operation, the case of the UNIFIL mission and the hunt for Hezbollah’s weapons provide useful insights into the limits of civil–military cooperation (CIMIC).

Since the six-week war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the UNIFIL force based in South Lebanon has been tasked with overseeing the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which has three main objectives: maintaining security on the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel (a line of withdrawal that constitutes the current border); reintroducing the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to South Lebanon; and clearing South Lebanon of weapons other than those of the Lebanese government.

While the first two tasks have been well managed by the force, it is the third that tests the limits of UNIFIL’s comprehensive CIMIC program. The mission, composed of around 40 nationalities, conducts many CIMIC activities at both mission and battalion levels. For example, it provides free medical and dental care; emergency hospital treatment; funding for infrastructure; classes in yoga, English, cooking and computer skills; and schemes to aid the local economy, such as training in organic agriculture and training for medical staff.

Civilian relations with UNIFIL are good. The local population appreciates the material and technical benefits the mission provides and values the highly responsive nature of the force. The Blue Line is generally respected by locals, and the UNIFIL–LAF relationship is described by both parties as highly productive and congenial.

But when it comes to searching for Hezbollah arms, UNIFIL is caught in the crosshairs of a domestic and international political conflict that it is unable to resolve. The international community would like UNIFIL to fully execute all of its objectives and rid the area of Hezbollah. At the local level, however, many civilians don’t want Hezbollah to give up its weapons. They believe that only Hezbollah can guarantee their security, not UNIFIL, and not the LAF, which, while respected, is regarded as underequipped. As one local councilman I interviewed put it, ‘It’s not that we don’t want our national army to defend us from Israel, but, until now, only Hezbollah has managed to do that for us.’

The debate over Hezbollah’s weapons is also a national one. The Lebanese government is split on the issue. One side, known as the March 14 movement, insists that Hezbollah’s military wing must disband and hand its weapons over to the LAF. Hezbollah argues that the LAF doesn’t have the military training and expertise to present a credible deterrent to Israel.

Hezbollah also suspects that the March 14 movement would use its own weapons against it to destroy the group. That suspicion isn’t entirely unreasonable: WikiLeaks documents revealed that during the 2006 war, elements within the movement were discreetly advising the Israelis where to hit Hezbollah the hardest. Hezbol­lah also argues that the movement is soft on Israel and can’t be trusted to use the LAF against Israel to ensure that Lebanese sovereignty is respected. In other words, Hezbollah argues that it can’t be confident that the state would put its weapons to good use if it were to hand them over.

For UNIFIL, patrolling and searching for unauthorised weapons is a delicate task. Although the LAF is broadly supportive of the mission, it also has to accept that Hezbollah is a legitimate elected part of the Lebanese government, and in fact the dominant faction, to which the LAF ultimately has to answer. Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, refuses to separate the group’s military wing from its political wing.

UNIFIL’s inability to search private property in South Lebanon, where weapons are believed to be kept, isn’t just due to local support for the group and the risk of blowback in the form of attacks on patrolling troops. As the strategic partner of the LAF, UNIFIL needs to maintain good relations, but the LAF is also sensitive about its relations with the local population, especially in the south where it didn’t patrol until 2006.

Not only does the LAF have to consider its political masters in Beirut, but it’s also reluctant to search property without first obtaining a court order. This issue dates back to the civil war when the LAF was criticised for commandeering private property illegally. Concern for its own status and legitimacy in Lebanon renders the LAF unwilling or unable to conduct raids on civilian property.

The delicate balance of deterrence and cooperation required in peacekeeping is a unique one. But, ultimately, UNIFIL through its CIMIC and civil affairs activity in South Lebanon has established local credibility, but not local legitimacy. The local population hasn’t internalised the goals of the mission sufficiently to actively assist UNIFIL in searching for and destroying Hezbollah’s weapons. What’s been generated by CIMIC instead is a contingent and conditional relationship with the local population based on material self-interest.

That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, and this relationship enables UNIFIL to patrol in relative safety and prevent escalations on the Blue Line, which ultimately helps maintain peace and security in South Lebanon. But the limits of CIMIC are clearly revealed in this case, and raise the question of whether it’s ever really possible for a foreign force to obtain local legitimacy when there’s no national consensus over who the bad guys really are.