This article first appeared in the Journal of International Peace Operations on September 21, 2006.
As the fighting intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens in Lebanon, there seems to be a growing consensus among UN, peacekeeping and Middle East experts: without Hezbollahi, Syrian and Iranian consent, the international force envisioned by the United States and others will fail to accomplish its mission and may very well become entangled in a messy war.
The UN is no stranger to Lebanon. UNIFIL, a UN peacekeeping force has been present since 1978. Resolution 425, adopted in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion, called for an Israeli withdrawal that took 22 years to materialize. In 2000, the UN certified that Israel had completely withdrawn from Lebanon and demarcated what became known as the Blue Line. It was then that Hezbollah and the Syrian-dominated Lebanese government revived the long-forgotten issue of the Shebaa Farms, which serves until today to justify Hezbollah’s weapons.
During its 28 years, UNIFIL proved incapable of preventing the use of Southern Lebanon as a launching ground for anti-Israeli attacks; it failed to halt the second Israeli invasion of 1982; and it also failed to protect Lebanese civilians from Israeli aggression and Israel’s northern region from Palestinian (and later) Hezbollah attacks. UNIFIL’s low point came in April 1996, when an Israeli bomb hit a UN camp in which Lebanese civilians had taken refuge, killing more than 100 people.
UNIFIL was tasked with regulating the violent relations between a state, Israel, and a non-state actor, Hezbollah, in a security environment characterized by the weakness of the Lebanese state.
In fact, UNIFIL is often derided for merely counting the blows and compiling regular reports about violations by the two sides without doing anything about them. At the same time, this impotence came at the cost of some 250 UN personnel, the heaviest death toll ever for a UN peacekeeping mission.
The other peacekeeping force deployed in Lebanon was the short-lived Multi-National Force (MNF). Originally, U.S. and European troops went in to stabilize the situation in Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion, facilitate the departure of Palestinian fighters from Beirut, and later support the central government to assert its control over the country. Very quickly, the complexities of the Lebanese civil war and the emergence of new actors transformed the environment in which the MNF operated. The MNF was soon perceived by significant segments of the Lebanese population, Syria and Iran as a hostile presence that sometimes acted as a party in the war.
The simultaneous attacks by Hezbollah against the U.S. Marine and French paratroopers barracks in October 1983 put an end to the illusion that somehow the MNF could play a stabilizing force in the country. The death tool was so high that the U.S., followed by France, Italy and the U.K., decided to withdraw its troops, creating an even bigger security void and ingraining the belief that if hit hard, the U.S. will leave.
The history and lessons of UNIFIL and the MNF must be factored into any initiative by the UN. Understandably, Israel does not want yet another UNIFIL-style mission, but a robust force with a clear mandate to disarm Hezbollah, whether voluntarily or forcefully.
Current efforts at the UN seek to work out a ceasefire agreement in the first phase, followed by a Chapter VII resolution to set up a UN-mandated, but not necessarily UN-operated, force to implement the terms of the ceasefire agreement.
The mandate of this force will be shaped by the international community’s desire, however realistic and attainable, to put an end to the Hezbollah threat to northern Israel and help the Lebanese state reclaim full sovereignty and authority over its country. Another likely mission will be to monitor the traffic of goods and people at Lebanon’s ports, airports and land crossings to prevent the re-supply of Hezbollah by Iran and Syria, and to help the Lebanese Army patrol its borders with Syria.
Israel has made it clear that it will hold on to the territory it occupies as long as its security requires it — unless and until the international community sends a robust force with a clear mandate to secure a wide strip of land in the south, interdict Hezbollah activity inside this zone and stop the launching of missiles above it. By announcing that it intends to hold on to any territory it invades until an international force is deployed, Israel has in effect taken the international community hostage to its own conditions.
The Lebanese government wants an international force to deploy as soon as possible but rejects a ceasefire that would not provide for an immediate Israeli withdrawal. It also plans to deploy Lebanese troops, something the UN has been calling for since 2000. Hezbollah has indicated that it would accept a ceasefire if Israel withdraws and accept only a beefed-up UNIFIL but not a new international force.
A force charged with forcefully disarming Hezbollah will run the risk of being attacked by the Shiite militia. Other sources of danger include other Lebanese or non-Lebanese groups joining the fight (as is the case in Iraq), Lebanon becoming yet another battlefield for global Islamist organizations, and the possibility of state collapse. Here lies the dilemma for the international community: it may well send peace-enforcers instead of peace-keepers, and if history is of any guidance, this is no comforting picture.
The composition of the international force is another thorny issue. Major European countries have reportedly offered troops. France and Italy are thought to be best positioned to lead it, although capacity, cost, risk and history are all obstacles. France would nevertheless accept this role to assert its influence in the region and preserve the special relations it has with Lebanon.
Turkey is often mentioned as a must-have because of its good relations with Syria and Israel. These may be good reasons to include Turkey, but at the same time can prove problematic as Turkey pursues other, more pressing regional interests and could become a complicating factor in the long-term.
Other non-Arab Muslim nations like Malaysia have also pledged troops. The presence of these troops is very important to counter the perception that the international force is there to do Israel’s bidding. For obvious and wise reasons, the United States will stay out, but has indicated its willingness to help with logistics and other support functions. Indeed, this will also be a challenge in terms of perception. The force will have to create a secure area, assist the return of IDPs and help the Lebanese government with reconstruction and humanitarian aid.
Estimates for the size of the force range from 10,000 to 20,000. It is hoped that overtime, building up LAF capabilities will translate into a smaller force, but this won’t happen in any foreseeable future. Moreover, the very presence of the force may quickly become an element of stability that none of the parties will want to remove. Providing such a large force for such an open-ended period will be a challenge for an already overburdened United Nations. Given what the international community envisions, it must include a real fighting capability, including heavy weaponry, artillery and air support. This is no mission for the UN per se, especially given how overstretched it is.
Many pundits push for a NATO command, but as President Chirac of France rightly noted, NATO would come to the region with much baggage and a Western color. The best model may well be Sierra Leone, where an UN-mandated force supported by British fighting units cooperated.
An international force is heralded by many as the solution, but the working assumptions behind this initiative are flawed. The fundamental weakness of this approach is that it isolates the Hezbollah issue from the larger regional dynamics and treats Hezbollah as the only source rather than an element and factor in the conflict. It could also antagonize the regional players and provoke the repeat of 1983. The international community should carefully weigh in the risks associated with this mission and realize that sending a force without the will and capacity to sustain casualties (and that could be withdrawn later because of attacks) will only worsen rather than improve the situation.