Last week, a ceremony was held at the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to mark the mission’s 35th birthday. The operation began in March 1978 to patrol southern Lebanon after Israel mounted an offensive against Palestinian fighters in the area. Since then, UNIFIL’s history has been punctuated by crises. In 1982 and 2006, the peacekeepers were sidelined during further Israeli incursions into southern Lebanon. The mission was heavily reinforced in August 2006 after the inconclusive war between Israel and Hezbollah, and it still totals roughly 11,000 blue helmets. But UNIFIL is currently facing potentially more-serious crises as the civil war in Syria threatens to destabilize Lebanon.
These crises could take many forms. UNIFIL could become caught up in clashes between Hezbollah, which is closely tied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the rebels that are battling to depose him. The mission’s strategic position could be undermined if Lebanon’s own sectarian and political divisions deteriorate. The resignation Friday of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has struggled to maintain some balance between Hezbollah and its foes in the Lebanese parliament, has highlighted this threat.
Most drastically, UNIFIL could face another Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon if the situation there spirals out of control. All of these scenarios represent major potential tests both for the U.N. and for the European governments that currently provide a third of the troops for the operation.