Walker's World: Grim Lebanon mission

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   Aug. 28, 2006 at 10:39 AM

PARIS, Aug. 28 (UPI) -- Despite the toughened rules of engagement that the French secured from the United Nations as the price of deploying a realistic number of troops to Lebanon, the mission is inspiring a grim sense of foreboding among senior European officers and defense officials.

The Lebanese peacekeeping operation is seen as one of the most high-profile tests so far of the European Union's hopes of developing a realistic foreign policy along with a robust military force and the political will to uphold it. Although the EU has mounted 14 separate peacekeeping missions since 2002, and it currently has forces in Indonesia, Moldova, Macedonia, Kosovo and Congo, Lebanon looks like being the most ambitious since the ill-fated attempt to save Bosnia after 1992.

This is partly because the toughest and most experienced of Europe's armies, the British, is barely involved at all, sending a frigate, some warplanes and offering training to the Lebanese. The next most capable force, French, now semi-involved with just over 2,000 troops pledged and offering to take over the command, although the less-tested Italians will provide the largest force of some 3,000 troops and assume command next year.

The Europeans are in all to provide some 7,000 troops with various penny packets from Spain, Poland, Finland and Belgium, and something of a question mark hangs over the rest. Israel has sensibly pointed out that it will be tricky to liaise with troops from countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia that are offering to send forces, and yet have do not formally recognize Israel's existence and have no formal diplomatic contacts.

Like Russia, Turkey has yet to decide whether to send troops or not. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said Friday he had voiced objections at the latest National Security Council session, and there are fears that the plan to use ports in southern Cyprus as the main logistical base for the U.N. force could involve Turkey is some de facto recognition of Cypriot sovereignty. The biggest concern is that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said bluntly that Turkey will not be involved in any effort to disarm Hezbollah by force -- but this is precisely the problem.

"The rules of engagement are worryingly close to contradictory," one British officer with Balkan peacekeeping experience told this reporter Sunday. "Just look at (U.N. Secretary-General) Kofi Annan's statement and try and make sense of it as if you were one of the U.N. troops on the ground."

Annan, in Brussels Friday for the EU summit, persuaded French President Jacques Chirac to overrule his reluctant generals and offer more troops by insisting that the peacekeepers would be authorized to use force "if, for example, combatants or those illicitly moving weapons, forcibly resist a demand from them, or from the Lebanese army, to disarm."

That sounded robust enough. But then Annan added that disarming Hezbollah -- which is specified as a goal in U.N. resolutions -- "is not going to be done by force."

Consider what this means in various scenarios. A Hezbollah rocket is fired, breaking the cease-fire. The U.N. troops are pretty sure it came from a mosque or from a Hezbollah-run medical clinic for women.

Are they going to go in with force? Can they go in alone or do they have to await the presence of the Lebanese Army? Must they also await (as they constantly did in Bosnia) the authorization of a U.N. official -- by which time all evidence of a rocket will have been spirited away down Hezbollah's underground tunnel systems. Do the U.N. troops have powers of arrest? Can they shoot Hezbollah militia who resist arrest?

In another scenario, U.N. troops come across a convoy of Hezbollah ambulances, guarded by well-armed Hezbollah "security escorts." The French troops have reason to suspect that arms and rockets are being smuggled, but the French may be outgunned, and the Lebanese army wants to wave the convoy through and the Malaysian and Indonesian officers agree. What can or should the French do? Can they call in air strikes from, for example, the British air contingent?

Will the Lebanese army genuinely seek to reimpose the authority of the state on southern Lebanon (for the first time in almost 30 years) or will it simply mount a token presence, leaving Hezbollah in effective control? And since Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government, and its political base in the Shiite community is the largest ethnic group in the country, why should not the policies of the Lebanese Army reflect this political reality -- and can the U.N. forces work with a partial Lebanese force?

These are hypothetical questions, but they are uppermost in the minds of worried EU officers who are being deployed to Lebanon. And they are also prominent in the concerns of the Israelis, whose faith in the United Nations, in troops from Muslim countries, in the Lebanese army and in the Europeans, is not strong. The Israelis, understandably, want guarantees that the rocket attacks are going to stop, and that under the terms of Security Council Resolution 1701, in return for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah will be disarmed.

No disarmed Hezbollah, no Israeli withdrawal; this equation has got some thoughtful Italians worried at the prospect of direct clashes between their troops and the formidable and angry Israelis. Italian generals and opposition politicians have been outspoken in their concern that Italian troops, the largest single contingent and thus likely to be in hot spots and under French command, could be caught in the middle of Israeli forces, Lebanese civilians and armed Hezbollah militiamen being re-armed by Syria.

"If we were to be allowed to disarm Hezbollah, then I would be the first to say 'yes' to the mission, but as things stand we risk placing our troops in the middle without even being allowed to slap anyone," said Francesco Storace, a former minister in the Berlusconi government.

France's defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, strongly backed her generals in their initial reluctance to deploy troops without a tough mandate, has publicly denounced her own diplomats at the United Nations who were content with "fluid" rules of engagement.

"The problem is that the military do not work in fluidity," she told Le Figaro newspaper Saturday. "This is a mission with real risks. For example, the military have to know what they have the right to do if the U.N. forces are forbidden from operating on the ground. Today, under the usual U.N. rules, they can do nothing. Often, they do not even have the right to use weapons, even non-lethal weapons, unless their lives are directly threatened. I find this unacceptable."

The challenge now will be, with the French providing less than a third of the European force and the Israelis unlikely to withdraw without real evidence that Hezbollah are being disarmed and the rocket attacks have ended, for Alliot-Marie's troops to apply the rules of engagement on the ground. They may look adequately tough on paper, but Kofi Annan's "clarifications" leave those crucial rules murky.

And Hezbollah itself has made it clear that it will not meekly swallow forcible disarmament in its southern Lebanese stronghold. Having successfully fought off the high-tech lethality of the Israeli army, Hezbollah is not likely to surrender its crucial bastion to a bunch of lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers, just because they ask nicely.

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