Can the UN mediate the Iraq and Lebanon crises?

While protests in both Iraq and Lebanon are calling for the removal of the entire ruling class, UN mediators seem to be focusing on preventing the two countries from descending further into violence and chaos.
Sunday 17/11/2019
Elie Abouaoun, director of the MENA programme at the US Institute of Peace. (Twitter)
Elie Abouaoun, director of the MENA programme at the US Institute of Peace. (Twitter)

UN representatives recently delved into the tumultuous politics of Iraq and Lebanon, searching for a peaceful solution to the showdowns between protesters and authorities.

In Iraq, mediation is spearheaded by Jeanine Antoinette Hennis-Plasschaert, special representative of the UN secretary-general of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), based on UN Security Council resolutions.

In Lebanon, the effort is led by Jan Kubis, a former Slovak Foreign Affairs minister and UN special coordinator for Lebanon.

Elie Abouaoun, director of the MENA programme at the US Institute of Peace, noted the difference between the Iraqi and Lebanese situations.

UN agencies in Lebanon, he said, “don’t have a special mandate decided by a [UN Security Council resolution] as is the case in Iraq. This means that their ‘political’ mandate is restricted and should only be confined to coordination,” he said.

The United Nations’ plan for Iraq included ending violence, anti-corruption measures and electoral reform by the end of November. It provided for constitutional amendments and legislative initiatives on infrastructure within three months.

Considering the impatience of protesters and their distrust of the ruling elite, Hennis-Plasschaert pressed Iraqi authorities to “step up to the plate and make things happen.”

“They are elected by the people. They are accountable to them,” she said.

She discussed the plan with Iraqi legislators November 13, saying: “Now is the time to act, otherwise any momentum will be lost — lost at a time when many, many Iraqis demand concrete results.”

“Something that very few people know is that actually the UN SRSG [special representative of the secretary-general] visited the sit-in because she wanted to convince them to give the [prime minister] a grace period of six months if he commits to a serious and feasible reform agenda,” Abouaoun said.

The UN mediation seemed welcomed by the Iraqi protesters. Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported demonstrators were “bolstered” by the meeting November 11 between her and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shia cleric.

“We’re optimistic about the UN and I respect her visit to Sistani,” Ali Kadhem, 33, a demonstrator at the main Baghdad protest site of Tahrir Square, told AFP. “Let them intervene more in Iraq. We want them here. Our people were starved, killed. We’ve been through everything.”

Abouaoun explained that “from the Iraqi public opinion stance, the UNAMI still enjoys relatively wide support. Obviously, the current steep political polarisation affects how some segments of the population perceive the UN but I don’t see their approval rate among Iraqis as plummeting.”

There were questions about the apparent convergence of the United Nations’ effort with the Iran-backed official Iraqi position to work with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

After considering removing Abdul-Mahdi, the political leadership of Iraq, including President Barham Salih, voiced support for the prime minister.

The official Iraqi stance was reportedly cemented during meetings in Baghdad that involved Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force. Following that consensus, the US call for early elections seemed to fall by the wayside. A political compromise could be a full reshuffle of the cabinet with Abdul-Mahdi staying as prime minister.

“Both the US and the UN are on the same page when it comes to considering the current PM as the ‘best option for the moment’ and both are trying to avoid creating a power vacuum that Iran is likely to use,” Abouaoun said.

“It is noteworthy that, within the same week, the US issued a statement supporting the efforts of the UN [and] the SRSG was received by Sistani personally, a rare occurrence/honour with foreign officials who usually meet his representatives, and the Iranians brokered a deal between Shia political parties to give the PM a grace period of 6-12 months with some reform initiatives on track.”

For foreign parties involved, Abdul-Mahdi is considered “the best option” because “he is politically weak, which allows each of the parties to implement their own agenda without much resistance from the PM,” Abouaoun said.

The risk of interference from outsiders, such as Iran, remains on mediators’ minds, however. Hennis-Plasschaert told AFP that she did not seek to be a counterweight to Iranian influence but said she feared “spoilers” could prevent progress.

“This country, unfortunately, knows many actors, external, internal, that could act as spoilers (and) undermine the legitimate demands of the people,” she said.

In Lebanon, Kubis called for the urgent formation of a cabinet including people known “for their competence and integrity” and who would be “trusted by the people. He said such a government would be in “a better position to appeal for support from Lebanon’s international partners.”

International goodwill is crucial for Lebanon, where reform could help release $11 billion in aid pledged at a conference last year.

The economic crisis loomed large in the UN coordinator’s efforts. “The financial and economic situation is critical and the government and other authorities cannot wait any longer to start addressing it,” he said after a November 12 meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

The formation of the new government is one of the most contentious issues in Lebanon. No party has as much at stake in continuing the status quo as Hezbollah, the Shia militant party holding many of the political cards.

While protesters clamoured for a technocratic government, Aoun pleaded in a November 12 interview for the inclusion of politicians in any future cabinet. He did not deny there was pressure from foreign countries to exclude his Hezbollah allies from the new government.

However, he said: “They can’t force me to get rid of a party that represents at least one-third of Lebanese.”

While protests in both Iraq and Lebanon are calling for the removal of the entire ruling class, UN mediators seem to be focusing on preventing the two countries from descending further into violence and chaos.

“My own reading is that we entered a phase of chaos in both countries that needs to be shortened to the extent possible so a concerted effort by the international community — with and through — the UN is more than welcome,” Abouaoun said.