BEIRUT: With the experience of four tours in Lebanon now behind him, outgoing UNIFIL Force Commander Maj. Gen. Michael Beary has witnessed some of the most violent periods in the country’s history. When he leaves next month, however, it will be on the back of the quietest period since the force was established.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Star, Beary set out the factors behind the period of calm, why there is still no solution to a number of territorial disputes on the southern border, and the impact of a high-profile attack by the current U.S. administration on the force, whose mandate is due for renewal at the end of August.
“It was always my intention to see teenagers enjoying peace in south Lebanon and we’re almost at that,” Beary said. “We will have 13-year-old boys and girls who have not seen what conflict looks like and that is a real positive. ... We need to keep moving in that direction.”
Since Beary’s first tour, the country has undergone significant changes. “In Lebanon in 1982, and then progressing through ’89 when I served here, ’94/’95 to the present era: I’ve seen a wonderful transition in that time,” he said. “It really is tremendously encouraging to see the transition and to see where Lebanon, and south Lebanon, has arrived at now. Really, it’s in a good place.”
Much of the peace is apparently down to a willingness to engage in dialogue on both sides of the south Lebanon border. “The parties have been tremendously engaged in seeking to grow the peace,” the commander said, noting that in 2017 there were three times as many tripartite meetings – between Lebanon, Israel and UNIFIL – than might be expected in a normal year.
“That shows tremendous engagement by both parties.”
This engagement between the conflicting parties has, Beary suggested, moderated tensions that could lead to a potential conflict, even over thorny issues elsewhere in the region.
The force monitors developments, for example, in southern Syria (where Hezbollah has recently deployed), or in Gaza.
“It is possible that there could be an impact from the region that would straightaway have a negative result on our area of operations, but we seek to ... isolate Lebanon from the broader regional context,” he said. Such isolation is achieved by “working closely with the parties,” Beary said.
Closer to home, frequent dialogue has prevented flare-ups in combustible areas of disputed territory, the commander said.
These include the Shebaa Farms, the town of Ghajar, Israel’s border wall along the imperfectly defined Blue Line, and even the maritime border, the last of which UNIFIL does not have a mandate to patrol.
Such issues show UNIFIL’s limits. The force, Beary said, “cannot replace political movement. ... The hard conversations have got to be had in time.” He considers the territorial disputes “problems awaiting solutions and there will have to be those hard conversations ... to find solutions to them.”
Fortunately, a solution could be around the corner for some of the disputes. The Blue Line border wall is one: “The constructions that have taken place down there [have been] closely supervised by both parties, facilitated by UNIFIL, and those constructions have taken place without any tensions.”
Despite Beary’s insistence that the onus for fixing some of these seemingly intractable problems lies with politicians across the border, one of the most difficult periods of his latest tour happened on the largest stage of international politics: the U.N.
The U.S. ambassador to the organization, Nikki Haley, attacked UNIFIL – and Beary himself – shortly before the renewal of the force’s mandate in August last year, saying the force had not done enough to tackle alleged Hezbollah weapons caches in UNIFIL’s area of operation.
Despite Haley’s criticism the mandate was renewed. Beary at the time said if there were a cache of weapons, “we would know about it.”
Nevertheless, the commander told The Daily Star the incident had added to an impetus to increase the force’s outputs. UNIFIL now undertakes 450 operational activities per day, 70 of those alongside the Lebanese Army.
“We have devoted an enormous amount of effort to foot patrolling in villages and along the Blue Line to give confidence to the population of northern Israel that UNIFIL is very active, and I think that whole period was a good platform for us to achieve [U.N. Security Council Resolution] 1701 in a better manner,” he said.
Beary is unequivocal regarding his stance on Hezbollah’s weapons, prohibited in the south under Resolution 1701. Weapons finds are immediately reported, then listed in the U.N. Secretary General’s reports on the implementation of the resolution. “If we do encounter weapons, I’ve given very clear orders that we will react ... to prevent any hostile activity against the southern party or other parties,” he said.
While Beary cites UNIFIL’s standout recent achievement as the maintenance of peace, he notes a number of subsidiary effects the force has helped bring about.
“We’re seeing a return to southern Lebanon; we’re seeing people building new houses, often ... very close to what was a very active front line at one stage,” he said. Furthermore, he said that a productive cooperation with the Lebanese Army and General Security has helped to maintain security for the UNIFIL staff and troops directly under his command.
The primary challenges facing Beary’s successor, Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col of Italy, are to maintain a good relationship with both UNIFIL’s host country and the local community, and, of course, to keep the parties on both sides of the southern border actively engaged “and facilitating a further development of peace, possibly in time building toward that elusive permanent cease-fire,” the outgoing commander said.
As he looks ahead to leaving Lebanon and a retirement from the Irish Defense Forces, Beary said the country will never leave him. “After having spent a significant portion of my life in Lebanon I have a very special regard for the country. Lebanon is part of me, really, at this stage.”