Wishing he could only finish his spa vacation in the south of France, president Jacques Chirac has had a bad couple of weeks. After shaping the ceasefire resolution and proposed stabilization force on the basis of its commitment to lead with several thousand troops, France appeared suddenly to reverse course, announcing that it would send only a token force. The outcry — across France, Europe, and the world — seemed to rush Chirac into reversing himself again: In a typically patronizing televised messages to the French people, Chirac announced that France’s concerns had been satisfied, and would send 2,000 troops to Lebanon. But in addressing those concerns, the French and their partners at the United Nations and in the European Union may have devised a way to do something they have never had any intention of doing: Help Israel.
It now seems clear that the outcry which nearly flattened the Elysée Palace last week was due mostly to a communications failure. The August 17 announcement of an additional 200 soldiers to the French UNIFL force was intended only as an immediate contribution to the existing operation, which is under French command. It was not meant to represent France’s contribution to the greatly enlarged UNIFL force now being negotiated among perhaps a dozen countries. Unfortunately for Chirac, he failed to explain that important fact for several days, while the government worked to figure out who was contributing what, and what exactly all these soldiers were going to do once they got to Lebanon.
The former question seems to have been resolved. Europe will contribute up to 7,000 troops, with further large contingents to come from Muslim countries in East Asia — Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. All told, the augmented force could number about 12,000 troops, a considerable increase from the 2,000 mostly Indian and African soldiers that make up the current force.
It is the other question — what exactly all these soldiers are going to do — that appears now to have given Paris considerable pause. Security Council Resolution 1701 is not specific on command structures or rules of engagement. And it is not much clearer on the mandate: The resolution authorizes an augmented UNIFL force of up to 15,000 to use all necessary means to “monitor” the ceasefire, “accompany” the Lebanese army in its deployment to the border, and “assist” the Lebanese army in creating a militia-free zone between the Blue Line and the Litani River. A news analysis in Le Monde explained that the army in particular was still reluctant to participate in any U.N. operation because of the disasters of Bosnia, and was also afraid that in south Lebanon it could become “a target” for Iran or Syria, both of which have been hit recently by U.N. resolutions cosponsored by France.
A glance at the map of Lebanon reveals several more military problems. The contemplated militia-free zone includes the Hezbollah stronghold of Tyre — a city of about 120,000 people much of which was destroyed in the recent conflict — as well as many smaller towns and villages crawling with Hezbollah fighters and rockets. Even in the unlikely case that that the Lebanese government requests U.N. assistance in creating this zone (and it won’t) the French would find themselves chasing after Hezbollah fighters in urban settings and through difficult terrain. Even more important, unless it asked to go further north, the U.N. force will be restricted largely to UNIFL’s current area of operation: the thin buffer zone (only a few miles deep) that runs between the Israeli border and the “Blue Line.”
You might think that with this mandate, UNIFL is set to serve only as a shield for Hezbollah, and that Israel will now be unable to retaliate against future Hezbollah missile barrages. Happily, that is probably wrong. Recall Israel’s 1978 “Litani River Operation” against the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which led to a ceasefire to be monitored by the newly minted UNIFL. Initially about 3,000-strong, this force and its Lebanese army partners didn’t do much to stop the PLO firing missiles at Israel over their heads. But the force rapidly grew to nearly double that number, and was eventually successful in minimizing the border skirmishes that normally lead to the worst of the missile barrages. And in 1982, the IDF blew right past them when it invaded Lebanon.
Despite appearances, things are shaping up in some ways quite favorably for Israel — insofar as this is possible. Israel may not have much ground truth to show for its military efforts in south Lebanon, but it did make a very important point, or rather two: Namely, that it will destroy half of Lebanon in the blink of an eye before it will permit Lebanon to be used as a missile platform to terrorize Israelis, and that it will blow right through anybody that Hezbollah tries to use as a human shield.
In effect, Israel has transcended its image problem. Agree with Israel or disagree with it, everybody now knows that if Hezbollah uses you as a human shield, you are dead. This creates a huge disincentive to being used as human shields — at least for Europeans, who are generally happy with the abundant supply of virgins (etc.) right here on planet Earth and feel no need to go seeking them anyplace else.
And there are reasons to think that Hezbollah may not be able to hide much behind the new force to begin with. First of all, the UNIFL-occupied buffer zone is only a few miles deep, whereas the typical Hezbollah rocket has a range of several dozen miles — and missile ranges are likely to continue increasing. If hostilities break out again, the Israeli air force will be operating throughout Lebanon unimpeded, and most air-strikes will be north of the Blue Line, where there will be no U.N. presence. As for ground forces, UNIFL’s unwillingness to disarm Hezbollah will be easily matched by its reluctance to fight the IDF. If Israel invades, the operation is likely to be extensively coordinated with the U.N. force, if only to guarantee their safety as far as practicable.
What is a new and very real possibility now is open conflict between Hezbollah and the U.N. force. UNIFL has in past years been accused of coordinating with Hezbollah, which it might have had to do just as a matter of survival. But the robust UNIFL, operating with the military freedom of action which France appears to have secured at the urgings of its army, will be in a position to impose facts upon Hezbollah. It will be high profile, and its commanders will want to prove that it is not “a joke,” as one Israeli ambassador described the current force. Importantly, it will not have to seek Hezbollah’s permission to move around. And although U.N. officials have made it clear that the U.N. force will not actively seek to disarm Hezbollah, they will demand that Hezbollah fighters found in the open give over their weapons, and they are prepared to use force to exact obedience.
The enhanced U.N. force will no doubt create many frustrations for Israel, and we should be prepared for the possibility of a hostile encounter between the two at some point. But we should also recognize one important bit of good news in all this: From now on, Hezbollah’s activities will be Europe’s problem, too. And however much the Europeans may oppose us on Iraq, their Angry Muslim problem is starting to dominate both their domestic- and foreign-policy agendas, and one gets the feeling that they are starting to get really sick of it now.
The most immediate effect of a robust European-led presence may indeed be to chill Hezbollah activity in south Lebanon. The current ceasefire could turn out to be a lasting interregnum. But with our without the fighting, one thing is increasingly clear. In seeking deviously to outsmart the Israelis and the Americans, Jacques Chirac and Kofi Annan may have outsmarted themselves.
– Mario Loyola is a former assistant for communications and policy planning at the Department of Defense.