UN's elite force raises the stakes in DRC

Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo - An elite UN brigade tasked with "neutralising" armed groups in the DRC has raised the stakes of the peacekeeping mission in the troubled country, and some observers fear the radical step could backfire.

The Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) established within  MONUSCO  - the UN's 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission in the DRC - was authorised by resolution 2098  in March to attack rebels pre-emptively if they do not disarm when asked.

The move abandons past UN risk-aversion in a way that critics fear could create a politicised force with an offensive mandate that fuels local resistance to peacekeeping and exposes humanitarian staff to new risks.

Violence has erupted in the eastern DRC over the past few days with tens-of-thousand of villagers fleeing fighting between rebel groups and government forces. The elite UN force of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian soldiers has deployed patrols, but has yet to engage in military action .

Pieter Vanholder, country director of the  Life & Peace Institute  in Bukavu, told Al Jazeera the FIB could have a deterrent effect, but "if some things go wrong, which they are bound to, the brigade will be seen as a kind of occupation force.

"As a consequence it could become a push factor for some to join armed groups, adding to local resistance," Vanholder said.

A novelty in the history of UN peacekeeping,  according to the resolution MONUSCO's 3,069 troops will "carry out targeted offensive operations through the Intervention Brigade, either unilaterally or jointly with the FARDC [the Congolese army]".

It will be under the control of the MONUSCO commander and have the "aim of neutralising [armed groups]".

Rebel groups

Rebel groups are named in resolution 2098, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU), National Forces of Liberation (FNL), Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS), and myriad Mayi Mayi bands.

But the 23 March Movement (M23) - currently DRC's largest rebel threat and accused of grave human rights violations - is the clear focus.

Estimated to number 2,000 fighters, M23 has proven military discipline, is driven by strong convictions - and is  likely to be a significant adversary, even to well-trained peacekeepers .

Its military leader, Sultani Makenga, has dismissed the possibility of being attacked by the elite UN force, telling Al Jazeera his group was no "negative force", as rebels are commonly called.

Makenga warned: "If the brigade engages in fighting us, we will certainly defend ourselves."

MONUSCO soldiers were ambushed on Monday by Ugandan ADF rebels about 250 kilometres of Goma. The attack was repelled by by Nepalese and Jordanian troops.

Although the Security Council underlined that FIB will not create a precedent for future peacekeeping, its deployment could be risky.

Concentrating exclusively on M23 could harm ongoing peace efforts, and any focus on a single group places MONUSCO in a potentially politicised position vis-à-vis other rebels.

It is also unclear what strategy is to be adopted towards pro-government militias.

Moreover, the definition of "armed group" remains blurred in a country where it is difficult to differentiate  highly decentralised actors such as Raia Mutomboki  from the civilian population that MONUSCO is supposed to protect.

Some UN sources said they fear FIB will face enormous logistical challenges in fulfilling its military goals with the infrastructure currently planned to support its operations.

Josaphat Musamba, a researcher at Simon Kimbangu University in Bukavu, warned "the brigade may not be able to engage with several groups at the same time".

It is feared UN humanitarian and civilian staff could also be seen as allied to the UN force and targeted, and the neutrality of NGOs using MONUSCO's armed escorts could be thrown into question - jeopardising their humanitarian access.

NGO fears

These concerns prompted 19 NGOs to write  to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May recommending that the Security Council "seriously consider suspension of the brigade if it does not perform well".

Concerns have also been raised about the safety of civilians if the UN force engages rebel groups militarily. "The brigade will certainly cause collateral damage and internal displacement," said Musamba.

Yet FIB's deployment confirms a growing feeling at the international level that "action" in DRC is imperative.

MONUSCO - the world's largest peacekeeping mission - has been widely criticised for its lack of ability, and doubts have been raised about its commitment to protecting civilians in the restive eastern part of the country.

Remy Kasindi - director of CRESA, a Bukavu-based think-tank - said a "dynamic intervention brigade will experience popular support as most Congolese are tired of inert peacekeepers."

Although he added he doubts FIB will be much more than a deterrent.

Protecting civilians and combating rebels are different goals that may be at odds.

An offensive mandate could also prolong delays in reforming DRC's security forces, which observers say should be pursued alongside FIB's deployment.

Despite the presence of trained officers in FARDC committed to improving the army's morale and capacity to protect civilians, the presence of poorly trained former rebels in its ranks makes reform a monumental task.

Many Congolese fear the national army as much or more than some rebel groups as it, too,  has committed grave crimes against civilians .

Peace talks

The deployment of the UN's elite force also appears to cast a shadow over  peace talks in Kampala , Uganda brokered by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. Targeting M23 militarily sends out a radically different message to calls by UN special envoy Mary Robinson for dialogue.

This potential contradiction  could be rectified if FIB's deployment forms part of a broader UN strategy taking into account the Kampala talks and the  Addis Ababa Framework Agreement - and is used as proof that the international community means business.

"While it is unclear whether the brigade will be able to live up to its ambitious military mandate, it comes with hefty political clout to back it up," wrote Jason Stearns, director of the Rift Valley Institute's Usalama Project.

But what is at stake could be nothing less than the philosophical foundation of peacekeeping - strict impartiality - already endangered by joint operations with FARDC since 2005.

It remains unclear how the brigade's aggressive mandate fits into the " Framework of Hope ", as Robinson has described the UN-brokered process.

Christoph Vogel is a Mercator Fellow on International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter:  @ethuin

Carol Jean Gallo is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University. Follow him on Twitter:  @Carol_Gallo