March 2016 Monthly Forecast

Posted 29 February 2016
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MIDDLE EAST

Lebanon

Expected Council Action

In March, Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag and the Department of Peacekeeping Affairs will brief Council members in consultations on the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1701, which called for a cessation of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006.

The mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) expires on 31 August 2016.

Key Recent Developments

The current situation in UNIFIL’s area of operations could be described as relatively calm but fragile. There were two serious violations of resolution 1701 and several other minor incidents. The most recent was on 4 January when two Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) vehicles were attacked south of the Blue Line, established in 2000 to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, in the general area of Sheb’a Farms. Hezbollah fighters set off a bomb, and Israeli forces responded with artillery fire. Hezbollah said in a statement that the attack was carried out by a group that it named after Samir Qantar, a prominent commander who was killed in Damascus by an Israeli air strike on 20 December, after which it had vowed to retaliate.

On the evening of Qantar’s killing, UNIFIL radars detected three rockets fired towards Israel from the general area of Al Hinniyah in southern Lebanon. The IDF informed UNIFIL that two rockets had impacted northern Israel and a third had fallen into the sea. The IDF retaliated with approximately eight rounds of mortar fire that impacted near Zibqin in southern Lebanon. No casualties were reported on either side. UNIFIL head Major General Luciano Portolano called the incident a violation of resolution 1701 directed at undermining stability in the area.

Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah remain high. In a televised address on 17 February, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to attack Israeli gas facilities, which could result in the deaths of up to 800,000 people. Nasrallah said the group has the capability to strike ammonia gas storage tanks in Haifa if the confrontation with Israel escalates, adding that “Israel knows Hezbollah has missiles and rockets that can strike anywhere in its territory”.

Meanwhile, Lebanon continues to be affected by regional developments and the effects of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran reverberating throughout the region. On 19 February, Saudi Arabia suspended a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to buy arms from France in what a Saudi official described as retaliation for Beirut’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi missions in Iran. The decision came after Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil refused to support Saudi resolutions condemning Iran during two meetings of Arab and Muslim foreign ministers. Saudi Arabia has also cancelled the remainder of $1 billion in aid that it had earmarked for Lebanon’s internal security service. (Saudi Arabia had pledged the aid package in 2013. The first shipment of equipment was delivered to Lebanon in April 2014 to support the LAF in its fight against Islamist militants infiltrating from neighbouring Syria.) Following the Saudi announcement that it was halting the aid, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on 20 February declared its “full support” for the decision, urged the Lebanese government to “reconsider its positions and policies”, and expressed its “deep regret” that Lebanese policy had become “hostage to the interests of external regional powers”.

The Saudi move shook an already splintered Lebanese political field. Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi resigned from the cabinet on 21 February, saying Hezbollah was harming Beirut’s relations with Arab countries. “There is an armed party that is dominating the government’s decisions”, Rifi said. “I call upon the government to at least apologize to the (Saudi) kingdom, its leadership and people”.

On 22 February, Lebanon’s cabinet met in emergency session on the Saudi decision. In a statement following the meeting, Prime Minister Tammam Salam insisted that Beirut stood by Arab countries and said that it was necessary to rectify relations between Lebanon and its “brothers”, to “remove the stains” that had surfaced recently. He added that Lebanon would maintain its policy of disassociation from regional conflicts. Salam announced that he would head a ministerial committee to visit GCC states to reassure them that Lebanon’s foreign policy respects its ties with Arab nations. However, the following day Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, issued travel warnings for their citizens in Lebanon, urging them to leave the country. On 24 February, Kuwait and Qatar followed suit.

Lebanon continues to face grave challenges. The country’s parliament has not been able to elect a new head of state, and the country has been without a president since May 2014. The resultant power vacuum and intensified sectarian divisions have impaired Lebanon’s capacity to deal with the political and social challenges it is facing. Fighting along the border with Syria and an inflow of more than 1.2 million registered refugees have placed additional burdens on the country’s stability. 

 Human Rights-Related Developments

 The Human Rights Council will consider the report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of Lebanon (A/HRC/31/5) and the report of the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (A/HRC/31/18/Add.1), during its 31st session in March. The special rapporteur’s report found that people in Lebanon are free to practice their religions and beliefs. Its recommendations include the need to reform the structural discrimination of religious family courts and develop a legal framework in accordance with international norms and standards for refugees fleeing religious persecution. The Working Group’s report contained 219 recommendations including abolishing the death penalty; taking further measures to eradicate discrimination against women; ratifying the Rome Statute of the ICC; and establishing a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles.

Key Issues

An increasingly worrying issue is the paralysis of the Lebanese parliament and its inability to elect a president, which threatens Lebanon’s stability. A related issue is how the Saudi-Iran confrontation may exacerbate existing sectarianism and further fracture the domestic political field.

An ongoing issue for the Council is the increasing involvement of Hezbollah and other non-state actors in the Syrian conflict and how this may draw Lebanon into more frequent confrontation with Israel, as in the instance of Israel’s killing of Qantar in Syria. Lebanon’s burden in hosting more than 1.2 million registered refugees from Syria is of deep concern as well.

Options

As Lebanon is approaching two years without a president, the Council could consider issuing a strong message (a resolution or a statement) encouraging political actors to elect a president. Such a message could address concerns about the situation along the Blue Line and urge parties to ensure that the cessation of hostilities is sustained. The Council could also reiterate its call on all Lebanese parties to recommit to Lebanon’s policy of disassociation from the Syrian crisis, consistent with their commitment in the Baabda Declaration in June 2012.

Receiving the briefing and taking no action is also an option.

Council Dynamics

The Council has been united in its position that UNIFIL contributes to stability between Israel and Lebanon, especially considering the current Syrian crisis. A comprehensive presidential statement of 19 March 2015 outlined the main issues on which the Council is in agreement. Though the statement was issued one year ago, the range of concerns remains the same. Council consensus includes its support for Lebanon’s territorial integrity and security, its condemnation of acts of terrorism on Lebanese territory and its recognition of the crucial role of the LAF in responding to security challenges.

France is the penholder on Lebanon.

UN Documents

Security Council Resolutions
21 August 2015 S/RES/2236 This was a resolution extending the mandate of UNIFIL for one year.
2 September 2004 S/RES/1559 This resolution urged withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, extension of the Lebanese government’s control over all Lebanese territory and free and fair presidential elections.
Security Council Presidential Statements
19 March 2015 S/PRST/2015/7 This presidential statement addressed several issues, including the situation along the Blue Line; the vacancy in the presidential office; and the effects of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, including the challenges posed by hosting nearly 1.2 million refugees, and it expressed support for the LAF, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the International Support Group for Lebanon.
Secretary-General’s Reports
4 November 2015 S/2015/837 This was the report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1701.
7 October 2015 S/2015/764 This was the Secretary-General’s report on implementation of resolution 1559.