The EU Must Act in Lebanon

Can the European Union muster the will to stop the fighting in the Middle East?


Article created by The Century Foundation.

The international conference in Rome on July 26 offered hope that a consensus could be reached on a plan that would end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. But the conference ended without a resolution, and the members of the European Union are scrambling to salvage their first diplomatic attempt to end the current crisis. The European Union should not be discouraged; it is capable of conducting a pro-active foreign policy and has the ability to commit the necessary financial, diplomatic, and military resources to bring stability and peace to the region. The European Union must act decisively as a counterbalance to U.S. unilateralism by proposing a European solution to the current crisis.

The failure of the talks have been blamed on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was “under siege” from the European and Arab state participants who were calling for an immediate cease-fire. Dr. Rice remained steadfast in her demand that any cease-fire must be preceded by the disarmament of Hezbollah. In true diplomatic fashion, humanitarian and reconstruction aid were agreed upon, but the hypocrisy of Washington doling out reconstruction aid to Lebanon with one hand and missiles to Israel with the other did not go unnoticed.

However, the chief problem is that the European Union, which has an unprecedented opportunity to bring regional stability and an end to the deadly conflict between Israel and its neighbors, is holding back, as if it needs a permission slip from the United States before it can act.

Unlike the United States, whose inaction in the face of the widening catastrophe has squandered its bona fides as a negotiator for peace, the European Union is still a credible broker in the region; Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority are members of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP)—their relationship yields more than 45 billion dollars in trade annually. The European Union also has normalized diplomatic and trade relations with Iran, the implicit puppet-master of this proxy war.

The European Union should consider the immediate dispatch of its EU Rapid Reaction Force (RRF)—invoking the EU Rapid Reaction Mechanism (RRM)—to southern Lebanon. The RRF is a European military force that can be “triggered in situations of crisis and armed conflict,” and falls under the auspices of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy. Its development was predicated on the idea that the European Union needs a force that can act independently of U.S.-led NATO missions. The RRF’s mandate limits its deployment to six months, which would afford enough time for Europe to build a semi-permanent EU force like the one deployed in the Balkans, or ideally, the development and deployment of the Lebanese army to secure its own peace.

Moving in this direction is necessary for a number of reasons. For one thing, Dr. Rice’s desire to see a U.S.-led NATO force deployed to southern Lebanon with the charge of ridding the area of Hezbollah operatives entirely, involves NATO deployment for ninety days, after which a UN-sponsored force would take charge. However, France’s president Jacques Chirac, who would support an EU force, opposes the idea of a NATO-led force, stating, “As far as France is concerned, it is not NATO’s mission to put together such a force…Whether we like it or not, NATO is perceived as the armed wing of the west in these regions, and as a result, in terms of image, NATO is not intended for this.” Thus, if Washington continues to push for a NATO force, the Atlantic alliance is at risk of collapse. Moreover, the United Nations is not up to the task: UNIFL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon , has failed to keep the peace, loses its mandate at the end of this month, and has already suffered casualties in this war.

Another solution that would not work is that proposed by Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief and former secretary general of NATO, who has proposed an international force made up of troops from Europe, Turkey, and the Arab states (which would be almost all Sunni). Dr. Solana’s vision is short-sighted and likely has more to do with a desire to pawn the manpower needed onto Turkey and Egypt, even though Egypt has categorically stated that it will not be a part of such a force.

The other problem with Dr. Solana’s vision is that by putting Sunni boots on Shia ground, the possibility of more bloodshed and wider scale conflict increases dramatically. In Iraq, radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has voiced his support for Hezbollah (which is a Lebanese Islamic Shi’ite group), and announced he is recruiting an army to deploy to southern Lebanon. The Iranian press reports that a deployment of Shi’ite suicide bombers has been dispatched to Lebanon with a mandate of inciting a civil war. While there may be Sunni support for Hezbollah, including Al Qaeda (a Sunni fundamentalist terror network) in its campaign against Israel, this support will be short-lived once a cease-fire has been attained. Osama bin-Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri has stated as much: “War with Israel does not depend on ceasefires. It is Jihad for sake of God and will last until religion prevails from Spain to Iraq.” The religion al-Zawahri speaks of does not include his Shi’ite brothers.

The case for an EU force must also take into account Europe’s refusal to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, which opens the door for direct negotiations with hopes for the possibility that an EU force can maintain the peace without firing a shot.

Israel also has indicated willingness for a highly trained European force to be deployed as a stabilization entity in Lebanon. In fact, this is the second time in a year that Israel has requested EU military assistance. Back in November 2005, Israel asked EU monitors to guard the Gaza/Egyptian border. While the EU monitors had no mandate to use force, Israel requested it. Israel realizes that it needs international support now more than ever, and the Europeans would be remiss to squander this opportunity.

On Tuesday, August 1, the EU foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting to discuss how best to organize a UN-mandated international force; a force that, the European Union must be reminded, is readily at their disposal. There is no time to waste. As Terje Roed Larsen, the United Nation’s chief envoy for Syrian/Lebanon issues, just said, “I do not feel confident that this war between Israel and Hezbollah has peaked yet.” The European Union must act before it is too late.