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U.N. Talks of ‘robust’ Lebanon Force, but What, Exactly, Does That Mean?

August 9, 2006
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The search for the perfect buffer force in southern Lebanon increasingly sounds like one of the loaded but vague words one sees in personals ads: “Robust” sounds nice, but what does it really mean? A buffer force is the next step in securing an end to Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, but diplomats now shaping the first step — a cease-fire — already are preoccupied with creating a force that both sides will find acceptable.

Leading the effort in the U.N. Security Council are the United States and France. The word that keeps cropping up among diplomats is “robust,” but no one has officially outlined what that means.

For Israel, it means being able to engage Hezbollah militarily, said Gal Luft, a former Israeli battalion commander who now is director of the Washington-area Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

“This kind of force will be targeted one way or the other by Hezbollah,” Luft said. “It has to be a fighting force; we’re not talking about police work here.”

Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said defining an international force was something of an evolutionary process.

“These are all, you know, kind of version 2.0, 2.1, 2.3., 2.4, to sort of borrow a software comparison,” he said Tuesday.

One version that everyone agrees is obsolete is UNIFIL, the hapless unit of truce observers that has manned the border area since 1978.

The eight-nation, 2,000-troop force has a strict monitoring mandate; its troops are armed with nothing more powerful then semi-automatic rifles, and may shoot only in self-defense.

Luft said UNIFIL is weak because its contributing nations — including Ghana, Ireland and Ukraine — are not battle-hardened. He said one good sign is that Turkey, with an army that for decades fought a guerilla war on its eastern frontiers, is likely to take a pre-eminent role in any force in southern Lebanon.

“They’re not likely to flinch when a suicide bomber attacks,” he said.

A French diplomat said UNIFIL also is crippled by terms of its creation that require it to launch any action only with the consent of the sovereign government. That has meant little in Lebanon, where a weak government for decades has ceded the South to a succession of occupiers, militias and terrorist groups.

The diplomat, speaking under anonymity, said the new force would have a different mandate that would allow it to act on its own recognizance.

“If forces attacked, we would have the right to respond,” the diplomat said, anticipating that France, a country with deep roots in Lebanon, would lead such a force. “The idea is not to put any soldiers in harm’s way, to respond in a robust way without consent of Beirut.”

But no one wants to specify yet what that means in practice.

McCormack rattled off a list of questions now being worked over by diplomats — “What’s the specific mandate? What does this international force look like exactly? What are the rules of engagement?” — but quickly added that it was too early to make any possible answers public.

However, he was ready to say what such a force would not do: “I don’t expect that it’s international forces that do the disarming of Hezbollah,” he said.

That’s Israel’s role, said Shoshana Bryen, director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

“You can’t expect any foreign group to undertake the disarmament of a terrorist group,” she said. “I’m not sure Israel would find any force acceptable until after Hezbollah has been defanged.”

The question, she said, is whether such a force would be able to keep Hezbollah disarmed after Israel finished the job. That could be daunting, especially securing Lebanon’s border with Syria to prevent weapons-running.

“You would be expecting a force to do on Syria’s western border what the United States has been unable to do on Syria’s eastern border” she said, referring to the infiltration of insurgents into Iraq. “Who’s going to work as hard as you are on something you want to have done?”

Another factor is Lebanon’s resistance to the very quality the French diplomat said was key to the force’s success — its ability to act freely. Lebanon instead wants a “beefed-up” UNIFIL that, for an interim period, would guide the Lebanese army in controlling the South.

Israel said it was interested in such a formula, and it seemed to be finding favor with the United States as well.

“The Lebanese government understands that the Lebanese armed forces need to be built up,” McCormack said, adding that the United States would provide funds to train and equip them.

The problem with that formula is that, since Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government, it’s likely that its militants will simply be incorporated into the Lebanese army, said Raphael Israeli, a Hebrew University expert on Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah.

“This is absurd,” Israeli said. “The Lebanese government is telling us Hezbollah is a partner in the government. If they are partners, how can they control them?”

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