A member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) looks through binoculars at Mount Bental, an observation post in the Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Qunietra crossing, August 31, 2014.
Baz Ratner / Reuters

On a recent trip to Mount Bental, an extinct volcano on the eastern edge of the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, I noticed a UN peacekeeper waiting in uniform at a café called Coffee Annan—a pun on Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general. The soldier, wearing his fatigues and a light blue UN baseball cap, seemed awkwardly out of place among the chipper tourists drinking cappuccino and buying baubles at the gift shop.

Although the café is at the summit, it is not exactly in the clouds—annan is also “cloud” in Hebrew. The mountain is only 3,842 feet high, but it provides a stunning view of the valley below, which was a battleground during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. One can also look eastward, far into Syria where the civil war has forced peacekeepers, like the one I met at the café, to evacuate to the Israeli side of the border. For months now, the soldiers have been reduced to patrolling, or attempting to patrol, a swath of Syrian borderland. But from such a great distance, it is practically impossible to monitor anything. Instead of being stationed on the ground, they are up with the tourists, gazing upon the vista alongside them.

The peacekeeper I encountered is hardly unique in his inability to meaningfully carry out his job. He is among the 14,000 peacekeepers assigned to one of four different operations in a region where there is little peace to keep. The missions cost almost $700 million a year to maintain. But because of the security situation of Israel’s neighbors, they are currently unable to accomplish much of anything.

HOW THEY GOT THERE

These four peacekeeping missions were set up over the years to deal with the aftermath of the wars that Israel fought with its neighbors. All of them involve monitoring the borders to ensure that the areas are free of illegitimate guns and fighters, but their mandates do not call for imposing peace when a government loses control of its territory. As a result, because of the internal conflicts in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, all four missions can do little more than go through the motions. 

The officer I met in the café belonged to the UN’s oldest mission, the UN Truce Supervision Organization, which was established in 1948, the year Israel declared statehood. It has been in continuous operation ever since and mainly contributes unarmed military observers to other operations. That is why the UN officer I spoke with was from UNTSO but had been temporarily transferred to another UN operation—the UN Disengagement Observer Force. It was established in 1974 to help maintain the cease-fire that ended the Yom Kippur War, fought by Israel against Syria and Egypt. Its main task is to monitor a demilitarized zone in Syria, which was created to prevent renewed fighting between the two countries. 

A peacekeeper with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
Karamallah Daher / Reuters

But since 2011, the civil war in Syria has spilled over into the cease-fire zone. In 2013, when Syrian rebels sought to drive out government forces from the city of Quneitra, a shell landed in a UN camp on the Israeli side of the cease-fire line, the de facto border, wounding a Filipino peacekeeper. In response, Austria recalled its 380 soldiers, who had made up over a third of the peacekeeping force. A year later, the UN pulled all of its troops out of Syria as the situation deteriorated further. The UN has plans to return its peacekeepers to the area, but the civil war in Syria will have to end before that happens. Or, at the very least, the Syrian government will have to regain control of the territory that the UN is supposed to monitor.

The third peacekeeping operation—the UN Interim Force in Lebanon—is dealing with a different challenge. It was deployed to southern Lebanon in 1978, following a war between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. But in 2006, after clashes between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the Security Council added two tasks to the operation’s mandate: assisting the Lebanese Armed Forces in keeping the area south of the Litani River free of armed personnel (other than those of the Lebanese government) and helping the government secure the country’s borders to prevent the entry of illicit arms.

The problem is that Hezbollah, although considered a terrorist organization by Washington and many others, has become the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon, thanks, in large part, to the support of Iran and Syria. Its strength has enabled it to operate freely in areas where its Shiite supporters dominate. This includes southern Lebanon.

One source of Hezbollah’s popularity is that it is better at providing basic social services than the government. This is not hard, since Lebanon has no president and its parliament has been paralyzed for years. This paralysis is partly Hezbollah’s fault because it has seats in parliament, it has veto power over cabinet actions, and it has not wanted any limits on its efforts to aid the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Hezbollah has suffered thousands of casualties in Syria fighting to keep Assad in power.

Thanks to the high level of government dysfunction, the Lebanese army has been unable to rein in Hezbollah, and it is unlikely that it would confront the group and risk reigniting a civil war. Since the Lebanese peacekeeping force must now assist the incapable army of a dysfunctional government, its hands are largely tied. Furthermore, even though this UN force is over 10,000 strong, none of the 40 countries that contributed soldiers, or the UN, has adequately equipped them to combat Hezbollah, an army nearly five times larger.

Still, the Lebanese mission keeps itself busy, conducting roughly 400 operations a day, according to a spokesman. But he admitted that only ten percent of these were carried out with the Lebanese army, raising the question of how effective those operations could be.

On the border with Egypt, the fourth and youngest peacekeeping force faces a less dire but just as intractable scenario. Called the Multinational Force and Observers, it began monitoring the Sinai in 1982 to carry out the terms of the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty. (Unlike the others, this peacekeeping force is not a UN operation—it is independent and was created by the 1979 peace treaty—because the Soviet Union, at the request of Syria, threatened to veto any Security Council resolution designed to set up a peacekeeping operation in the Sinai.)

In recent years, the Egyptian government’s crackdown on Islamists and the chaos in the region have drawn Islamic terrorists to the Sinai. Although few in number, they have attacked security forces in the northern part of the peninsula and the Egyptian army has so far shown no capacity for responding effectively to the threat. Scores of Egyptian soldiers have been killed and a number of the peacekeepers have been injured even though the terrorists have not specifically targeted the latter.

A member of the United Disengagement Observer Force.
Baz Ratner / Reuters

As a result, the operation has closed vulnerable observation posts and will rely more on drones and other technology. It has also relocated personnel from its northern Sinai base to its southern one even though that puts them far from where they should be in order to do their job. Its main role, under the Camp David accords, is to monitor the Egyptian forces, which have strict limits placed on their numbers depending on how close they are to the border.

An improved security situation, which would allow the peacekeepers to return to the area where they are most needed, is not going to happen soon. Cairo’s counterterrorism strategy is as unclear as it has been ineffective. It has been suggested that all civilians be evacuated from the area to create a free-fire zone, which would be like using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. On the other hand, the government is also considering pouring billions into infrastructure projects as a way to win the support of the local population, which traditionally it has largely ignored. 

WHY IT WON’T CHANGE

These four peacekeeping missions, which are on average over four decades old, were predicated on the governments in question controlling their own territory. Right now Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria are incapable of maintaining stability at their frontiers, which makes effective peacekeeping impossible. And none of those situations is likely to change soon.

The arguments offered for continuing these peacekeeping operations, in spite of their ineffectiveness, is that once a mission has been drawn down, political hurdles make it nearly impossible to quickly restart. Then there is the symbolic importance of peacekeepers, the political implications of their removal, and their usefulness, which lies mainly in facilitating communications between the two sides. But a 14,000 strong, $700 million communications team seems like a waste of both money and human resources. (Beyond which, more than 400 of these peacekeepers have died.) Perhaps the truth is more simple: the international community is using peacekeepers to maintain appearances in the region, while sending thousands of soldiers on a mission that is increasingly becoming a mission impossible.