UN Sets Vote on Troop Cut to Lebanon Force After U.S. Pressure

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The United Nations Security Council is set to cut its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon following U.S. pressure to either change the mandate for the force or reduce its numbers, according to a text of the resolution shared among diplomats.

French diplomats circulated a resolution to the council on Thursday that authorizes the reduction of the troop ceiling to 13,000 soldiers from 15,000, a symbolic nod to long-running U.S. demands in order to maintain a mission most council members argue is indispensable to keeping the peace between Israel and Lebanon.

The resolution, a copy of which was seen by Bloomberg News, also calls on Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to come up with a “detailed plan” for improving the mission and to present it to the Security Council within 60 days. A vote will be concluded on Friday, the UN said.

The compromise allows the U.S. to declare victory while maintaining the force, known as UNIFIL, largely intact. The U.S. and Israel have long criticized the UN mission for failing to stop Iran-backed Hezbollah from obtaining arms and building up its military presence in Lebanon under their noses.

“The United States remains committed to its partnership with Lebanon,” U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft tweeted earlier this year. “But @UNIFIL continues to be prevented from fulfilling its mandate. Hizballah has been able to arm itself and expand operations, putting the Lebanese people at risk. #UNSC must either pursue serious change to empower @UNIFIL or realign its staffing & resources with tasks it can actually accomplish.”

One-Year Renewal

The resolution also calls on Guterres to report promptly and provide a detailed breakdown of violations of the sovereignty of Lebanon, on the restrictions to UNIFIL’s freedom of movement, and on “specific areas where UNIFIL does not access and on the reasons behind these restrictions.” The resolution would renew the mission for one year.

During talks at the UN, the U.S. urged the council to either cut the troop levels or give it a more aggressive mandate to search homes for weapons in the border region it patrols, something it currently struggles to do. Some hawkish outside advisers to the Trump administration have called on the UN to completely dismantle the $500 million mission, of which the U.S. is the biggest financial backer.

Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has frequently worked with the Security Council and Guterres to build consensus on reducing or eliminating UN peacekeeping missions it views as costly or ineffective.

UNIFIL, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, was established in 1978 to patrol Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. After a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, its mandate was expanded with a more ambitious goal of making the area weapons-free. But Israel frequently calls on UNIFIL to take a stronger approach in enforcing the cease-fire and cracking down on Hezbollah’s military deployment in Southern Lebanon.

As a sign of the continuing tensions along the Lebanon-Israel border, the Israeli air force struck Hezbollah observation posts earlier this week after saying they had come fire earlier.

One UN diplomat, asking not to be identified discussing a matter still under debate, said the cuts would have little impact on operations on the ground given that 10,500 soldiers are currently deployed.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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