Polish soldiers are returning to Lebanon. This operation, however, is very different from the mission they took part in ten years ago.
Considering military contingents deployment, the Middle East is the most natural destination for the Polish Armed Forces. The first Polish outposts in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region were created already in the mid-1970s, which means that Poles have many years of experience in executing similar operations. An additional advantage is the relatively small distance to Lebanon, which facilitates logistics. As for the country itself, despite a multitude of internal problems, it is definitely more friendly than Afghanistan or Iraq.
Nevertheless, the mission must not be treated lightly. Hezbollah militant groups have been on a warpath with Israel for several decades, and the conflict has many times turned into open warfare (last time in July 2006). The situation in the region is also significantly influenced by geopolitics. Due to the strong bond with Iran, any conflict that affects Iranians will have direct influence on the situation in Lebanon.
Both military men and politicians have regard to the particularly sensitive character of the new contingent. Within the last decade, UN missions, under the auspices of which the Polish contingent will operate, have significantly changed in character, so they must be perceived as a completely new challenge. Thus, the preparations focus mainly on familiarizing procedures, which are thoroughly analyzed and learned by all people engaged in the creation of the new Polish Military Contingent (PMC). The manner in which the soldiers going to Lebanon will operate is also crucial.
To Stop the Conflict
Our contingent will be deployed in the Jabal Amel region in Southern Lebanon, which is dominated by the Shia community, but local villages and small towns are inhabited also by Sunni Muslims, Jews, Druze, Alewites, and Christians of various denominations. The place is characterized not only by complicated demography; Israeli territory, lying in direct vicinity, is separated from Lebanon by a thin blue line – a demilitarized zone created by the UN after the war, in 1978. It is one of the outposts within this very zone that will be held by the Polish staff. A dozen or so kilometers to the east lies another territory that causes conflict – the Golan Heights.
LtCol Paweł Bednarz, the commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 12th Mechanized Brigade, and also the commander of the 1st rotation of the PMC in Lebanon, emphasizes that the soldiers are fully aware of the specific situation in the region. “Some say that it is a barrel of gunpowder. If we handle it correctly, nothing bad will happen, but even one, seemingly harmless incident, can change the fate of the whole mission. That’s why we want to learn as much as we can about their culture and traditions, so as to have the best possible contact with the local community,” says the officer.
Considering the mission itself, however, it is not the conflicts among local groups that are the biggest threat. UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) was established to stop the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, and monitoring the activities of both conflicting sides has always been its priority task. “The Israeli want UNIFIL units to protect them against missiles and attempts to dig under the blue line, while the Lebanese want to keep their independence and regain control over the border. Two sides, and between them soldiers in blue helmets, who are to ensure security. Using the words of the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, peacekeeping is not a job for soldiers, but only soldiers can do it. We will wear vests and carry guns, but we will do everything we can so that we don’t have to use them,” explains LtCol Bednarz.
Protecting civilians will also be one of the mandate tasks of our soldiers. They are to safeguard the humanitarian law in armed conflicts in the region of operation. The law requires reaction in the cases such as violation of women’s rights, sexual assault, ethnic or religious persecution. Poles are also to intervene every time there is a confirmed presence of children participating in the fights.
Evolution of UN Missions
The Polish Armed Forces first took part in the UNIFIL mission in 1992, when a medical company was sent to Naqoura to substitute for Swedish and Norwegian doctors. Two years later, the contingent was reinforced by a logistics component, which carried out its tasks until the end of 2009. After a ten-year break, Polish soldiers are returning to Lebanon as patrol forces. They will execute their mandate within the frame of the Irish-Polish battalion composed of two maneuver companies under common command. It is a very desirable solution from the Polish point of view, since Ireland, being a Frame Nation, has been constantly active in the UNIFIL mission for the last 40 years.
According to Tomasz Ekiert, the main expert of the International Security Environment Department of the MoND’s International Security Policy Department, the cooperation with the Frame Nation of the battalion has been very successful from the beginning. “The Irish are glad to share their experience and give us information on the situation in the region of operation. Coordination of personnel- and equipment-related activities between Warsaw and Dublin is also necessary. We have to establish relations within the battalion and divide responsibilities at the base, in order to complement our efforts, not duplicate them. It is hard to overestimate a solid partner in a situation like this,” praises the Irish Tomasz Ekiert. He adds that the Irish-Polish battalion will also be reinforced by soldiers from Hungary – at first only staff officers, but already in 2020 the component is to number several dozen soldiers.
Talks regarding preparations for the UNIFIL mission are carried out along two channels. The most important negotiations are those between the government and the UN, with the participation of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Poland to the United Nations in New York. “We are acting as a Polish embassy at the UN, so all communications have to go through us. The negotiations have been ongoing since October 2018. Poland has been taking part in military operations for many years, so we have vast experience, also in forming a contingent, redeploying it, and ensuring logistics support on site. Readjusting to the new system of organizing the UN contingents requires much more effort from us,” emphasizes Col Dariusz Kacperczyk, the Senior Military Adviser at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Poland to the United Nations, and points out that recent years have brought huge changes in the area of organizing peace operations. The way they are planned and supervised has been remodeled. Even if there are still soldiers in the Polish Armed Forces who have experience of participating in UNIFIL or UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) missions, it is on many levels irrelevant now.
The UN strictly regulates not only the mandate tasks of the mission, but also the strength of the battalion and its equipment. They are all determined in a dozen or so separate categories which leave very little space for interpretation. Every state can equip its contingent with additional elements, but it must be contractually agreed with the UN (Memorandum of Understanding – MoU) and might be non-refundable. Poles will have more equipment than minimum UN standards, which will help the soldiers of the 12th Mechanized Brigade to be prepared for every possible scenario.
Protecting People and Cultural Goods
Preparations for the 1st rotation of PMC Lebanon are also ongoing in Poland. Soldiers are attending compulsory courses organized by the Foreign Missions Preparation Center in Kielce. The courses have been developed on the basis of requirements included in the Core Pre-deployment Training Materials, i.e. an almost 2,000-page official UN document. It characterizes peace missions and determines the principles of their functioning. It also presents in detail how mission tasks should be executed. “After Poland had withdrawn from UNDOF and UNIFIL, our center still organized courses for military observers who are sent to the regions of UN peace missions. The trainings generally follow similar guidelines, so we have up-to-date information all the time. Also, when preparing for our first UNIFIL training, we were in constant contact with the contingent’s commander and worked on the formula of the course together,” explains LtCol Marcin Matczak, Head of the Trainings Department at the Center. He emphasizes that in this way, the guidelines given in the materials supplied by the UN were supplemented with other aspects, like civil-military cooperation, social and cultural factors in military operations, and information activities.
The basic two-week course was supplemented with a five-day special training for command staff of the contingent, pertaining to the law on peace missions, as well as protection of people and cultural goods. “We also organized lessons of Arabic, taught by a teacher from Lebanon. The soldiers will cooperate with interpreters in the region of operation, but basic knowledge of the local language is welcomed in any culture. It enables the soldiers to make first intercultural contacts and helps to build positive relations with other people,” says LtCol Marcin Matczak. During military training ground exercises soldiers also perfect other skills necessary to follow operational procedures during patrolling, personal and equipment searches, and detecting IED threats.
There have also been reconnaissance activities conducted in Lebanon to check the living conditions prepared for the contingent. The Shamrock base, where Polish soldiers will be stationing, was built by the French in the 1990s. “On site, we inspected board and lodging conditions, sanitary and vehicle service facilities. Poles will live in container houses. It is a two-nation base, but there are common areas such as the canteen and sanitary facilities,” enumerates LtCol Andrzej Łydka, the Head of the Contracting and Clearing Department at the Military Contingents Support Division at the Logistics Board of the Armed Forces Operational Command. He also emphasizes that the whole logistics infrastructure will have been prepared by the time the Blue Brigade soldiers arrive in Lebanon. The UNIFIL teams of engineers are currently preparing the territory to expand the accommodation base, with the help of the Irish battalion. “Considering the big number of soldiers, we are also planning to build the second gym. Everyday life in the base is focused on patrolling activities, but soldiers also need a place to relax,” adds LtCol Łydka. Although the bigger part of the year is hot and dry, the soldiers will also have to prepare for cool, rainy winters, as well as snowfall in the mountainous area. Such weather conditions, similar to those in Afghanistan, also require at special preparation of drivers.
Memory of Poles
At the turn of August and September, the soldiers of the Blue Brigade will start the certification process, during which they will have to prove their skills required to take part in the UNIFIL mission. Their level of preparation will be evaluated by a validation team made up of the Armed Forces Operational Command and UN experts. No later than eight weeks before departure, UN representatives will also inspect and evaluate the preparation of all military equipment that is to be sent to the area of the mission. This is an important part of the preparation process, since UN-mandated missions are financed from member states’ contributions. This means that a part of the operating costs of equipment, including its depreciation, will be refunded, on the condition that the equipment is fully compliant with the requirements and is enumerated on the list included in the contract signed between the UN and the Polish government.
After successfully completing both certifications, the several-week-long process of transporting the equipment will begin. “This mission is completely different from what our soldiers learned in Afghanistan. To put it simply, going to Lebanon, they must forget their former reactions to crisis situations. It is not an offensive mission, and this kind of behavior might do more harm than good,” points out Col Kacperczyk, adding that UNIFIL is also an opportunity to gain new experiences in many areas. In Jabal Amel, Polish soldiers will carry out tasks related to civil-military cooperation, and conduct trainings for the Lebanese army. The success of the mission will depend on establishing good relations with the local community.
“In order to reduce tensions in the region, it’s not enough to just be there. Building long-term relations with local communities is necessary if we want them to trust us. It is worth pointing out that the memory of Polish soldiers is still alive in Lebanon. During the reconnaissance, local salesmen greeted us in Polish, and one of them told us about his father, who was for many years engaged in trade with Poles, using correct Polish. These are exactly the memories we want to refresh, and relations we want to rebuild,” concludes Col Dariusz Kacperczyk.
Polish soldiers are going to Lebanon already in November 2019.
autor zdjęć: Aleksander Rawski