For Germany, this is a historic occasion. For the first time since World War II German soldiers are commanding an international UN force. The German Navy, which for the most part has only had experience in naval maneuvers, finds itself in one of the hottest war zones in the world – off the Lebanese coast.
The naval component of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) currently includes about 1,500 troops serving on 19 battleships from seven countries. The dark grey color of the German destroyers, which are designed to sail the Atlantic Ocean, is prominent against the background of the light turquoise of the Mediterranean.
"This is a desired effect. We want to be seen," explains the German forces' spokesman Frigate Commander Bardischewski. "We are here to deter, to foil and to assist, not to fight."
(Video: Gil Yaron, Reuters)
The role of UNIFIL's naval force, as defined in Security Council Resolution 1701, is simple: In clause 14 of the resolution, the Lebanese government is called upon "to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms or related materiel". UNIFIL was authorized to assist the government of Lebanon at its request.
Admiral Andreas Krause, commander of the naval force, explained, "We are here to ensure that weapons are not transferred by sea."
Krause, whose rank is parallel to that of a brigadier general, was certain that his soldiers will accomplish their mission. "I don't have any indication at the moment that we are not fulfilling our task," he said.
On the face of it their task is simple. Along the Lebanese coast's 200 kilometers ( 124.2 miles ) there are only three major sea ports: Tripoli, Beirut and Sidon.
Onboard the German flagship (Photo: Gil Yaron)
“In the past, our ships’ sophisticated radars have even located dead cows and television sets thrown into the sea. We see everything,” Bardischewski assures. However, the picture is more complicated than the motivated German soldiers are willing to admit.
“I don’t believe that they are able to track the movement of every little sea craft,” said Wolfgang Hentze, a retired German navy officer.
UNIFIL’s mandate facilitates weapon smuggling even further. The UN is in Lebanon’s territorial waters only in order to help if asked. Care was taken not to impinge on Lebanese sovereignty.
According to the formulated procedure, UNIFIL ships are merely “hailing” all ships headed to Lebanon, checking off a list of 14 questions.
“Those who are suspicious are passed on to the Lebanese,” explains Lieutenant Colonel Oliver P, commander of the war room on board the force’s flagship.
About 1,600 trade ships have been thus checked. Only three times has the suspicion of UN soldiers been raised so far. But all three cases turned out to be unrelated to terrorist activity.
However, this did not mean that Hizbullah is lying idle. The main supply routes have never led through Lebanese ports, but through the 375 kilometers of the winding and uncontrolled border with Syria.
With this background in mind, it is obvious that the UN does not have the ability to fulfill its military assignment and stem the tide of weapons reaching Hizbullah.
Stationing the ships is thus mainly a political statement, clearly stating that Europe acknowledges the importance of stability in the region for the sake of its own safety. “We are protecting Europe’s shores from here,” explains Captain Mike Jäger, commander of a fast patrol ship off the coast of Lebanon.
Not terror, ‘A-symmetric threat’
The Germans are well aware of the dangers facing their soldiers during their tour of duty in the Middle East.
Although Ynet was given permission to publish the names of senior officers in the special task force, the names of crew members remain confidential, as a lesson learned from previous threats made towards family members of soldiers serving in Kosovo on behalf of the UN.
The main fear is of an ‘asymmetric threat’, military vernacular for terror attacks. Part of their base of operations in Limasol, Cyprus, has become a full-fledged military basis, complete with armed German soldiers patrolling behind empty containers, with permission to open fire should anyone try to break in.
The most likely scenario is a suicide commando attacking a warship with a bomb mounted on a speedboat, copying the infamous attack on the USS Cole in 2000, which injured 17 crew members were killed and injured 39.
To prevent terror attacks, alert is constantly kept on its highest level. Target practices are carried out daily, anti-missile defense systems are scanning the horizon around the clock, the armed machine guns on deck can be manned within 30 seconds.
However, the truly dangerous missions are left to the Lebanese Navy, the only one allowed to detain and inspect incoming sea crafts in its territorial waters.
This is precisely the danger that the mission statement implies to Israel; even if the Germans express “full trust” and are impressed by the “professionalism and determination” of Lebanese officers, no one can guarantee that those, being themselves Shiites to a great part, will attempt to thwart the rearming of Hizbullah.
Trade ships arriving directly from Iran pass UNIFIL ships unhindered if their papers are in order. Under these conditions, it is difficult to ensure that weapons do not make their way to Nasrallah after all.