The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was created by the Security Council in March 1978 to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and restore international peace and security. Since 2006, UNIFIL has been operating in southern Lebanon by supporting land and maritime Lebanese forces in improving their capabilities and preserving peace in the area. France, Italy, Spain and Ireland took turns at the helm before Brazil arrived. In mid-2010, the UN invited Brazil to contribute to UNIFIL.
Office of the Military Advisor at the Brazilian Permanent Mission to the UN commented on the invitation at that time: "The UN [has a special interest] in Brazilian participation in the highest command offices within the mission. Such interest was justified by Brazil's current standing in the international arena, and by the high level of Brazilian performance within UN peace operations and the level of acceptance by the contributing countries and the surrounding countries."
On 29 September 2011, Brazil became involved in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The Brazilian Navy was authorised, by the National Congress, to send a ship to join UNIFIL. The presence of a Brazilian ship in that region contributes to the guarantee of peace and security in Lebanese territorial waters. Brazil's navy, which is the only naval UN operation, has led the peace operation for ten years.
After Beirut's blast on 4 August 2020, the Brazilian government is assessing the decision to bring the UN peacekeeping ship in Lebanon back to Brazil: "The decision is to end the mission because the navy has few means, there is a huge logistical effort and there are other priority areas for Brazil," a government source told CNN.
This was not the first time Brazil indicated its intention to withdraw its mission from Lebanon. In July last year, governmental sources announced to the Brazilian newspaper Folha São Paulo that the Brazilian government took the decision to withdraw its participating force in UNIFIL from Lebanon. The Brazilian Navy formally submitted to the Ministry of Defence the proposal to end tasks of ships and aircraft in the Maritime Task Force. The formal justification considers "strategic, operational and logistical aspects which delimit the Brazilian strategic environment." Some sources said that the Brazilian frigate would return to Brazil by the end of this year.
In an interview, former Brazilian Foreign minister Celso Amorim informed MEMO that the withdrawal of the Brazilian navy will be a highly regrettable if it is indeed confirmed, because Brazil's participation in UNIFIL is very important: "I visited Lebanon several times and I think it will be a big loss for the Brazilian navy. It is a kind of experience and of course the Brazilian role in the Middle East has always been in favour of peace."
According to Congressman Paulo Pimenta from the Brazilian Workers' Party, the decision to withdraw is "historical, humanitarian and political irresponsibility. The Workers' Party is against the withdrawal of the mission and will be in favour of all support and solidarity initiatives," said Pimenta.
It seems that the Brazilian justifications hide the true reasons. The strong ties between the Brazilian government and the Israeli government, particularly after Bolsonaro's winning of the election in 2018, is no more hidden. According to sources reported in DefesaNet, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a telephone conversation with President Jair Bolsonaro in August 2019, requested the withdrawal of the Brazilian Force from UNIFIL.
Israel presented its reasons, that the Brazilian Force has been tracking radars of Israeli aircraft while they were operating in the region, in Lebanon or en route to Syria. Israel clarified that it does not want to repeat the USS Liberty incident, which happened in 1967, when the Israeli Aviation aircraft, during the Six Day War, hit the American intelligence ship and killed 34 sailors. "It is necessary to understand that Bolsonaro still has a main alignment with Israel, so he is moving to withdraw the Brazilian mission in Lebanon and put the reason on economic pressure," explained Brazilian Congressman Nilto Tatto.
Sources say that one of reasons behind withdrawing is that the Brazilian presence in the mission will be weakened if Bolsonaro takes the step of labelling Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. This is part of Bolsonaro's efforts to forge stronger ties with Donald Trump. According to an article published in Bloomberg in August 2019, Brazil is studying the option of labelling Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation after Paraguay and Argentina labelled Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and Brazil should be the next.
This was confirmed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a conference which was held on July 2019 in Argentina. Pompeo praised Argentina's classification of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and urged Brazil to do the same. On the same day, three US senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking him to urge his Brazilian counterparts to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. It seems that Bolsonaro fears that its forces in Lebanon will become the target of any act of retaliation if he takes the step of labelling Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. So, he is taking advantage of Beirut's blast to withdraw the Brazilian mission in Lebanon to make this step easier.
"I think even for Israel if there is any negotiation that will be a loss. I can remember when I was a foreign minister, in a meeting with Netanyahu and President Lula was present, he asked us to be in touch with Syria about the Golan Heights, and then I kept this dialogue with him. Hezbollah is certainly not a terrorist organisation, it is an important political actor in Lebanon. Brazil has always been one country with that capacity to dialogue with different forces in Lebanon," explained the former foreign minister Celso Amorim.
Brazil's involvement in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) since 2011 is considered an important part of international peace and security efforts in the Middle East, strengthening the country's foreign policy as it presents itself as a 'peace provider'. If the step of withdrawing is indeed confirmed, it will be a big change on the map of Brazilian relations that has always been in favour of peace.
Last Wednesday, 12 August 2020, President Bolsonaro sent a humanitarian aid mission to Lebanon through a delegation led by the former Brazilian President Michel Tamer, who has Lebanese roots. But the question remains, was the decision of withdrawing the Brazilian peacekeeping mission from Lebanon on the agenda of the Brazilian delegation who left Beirut on 14 August. Or will this humanitarian aid be a cover for the decision of withdrawing the Brazilian mission later?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.