Lebanon: UN to the Rescue?

UN troops may be the only way out of the present crisis, but difficult questions remain.


Article created by The Century Foundation.

This highly detailed UN account of its mission in Southern Lebanon, which
has existed from 1978 to the present day, provides some useful background
information about the situation there. Right now the UN has 2,000
international troops deployed in Southern Lebanon to enforce and patrol the
the border established when Israel withdrew in 2000. The document recounts
in depth much of what’s happened since then. I am sure many would dispute
aspects of the account, but taking it at face value here’s what’s salient:

  • The Lebanese government has persistently refused to take control over its Southern border, taking the position that absent a permanent peace with Israel its army would not serve as Israel’s border guard. In report after report and resolution after resolution, the UN Secretary General and the Security Council have implored the Lebanese to get a handle on this most volatile swath of land, but to no avail.

  • Since the withdrawal 6 years ago, there has been a steady stream of violent flare-ups, including deadly missile and mortar attacks by Hezbollah that have provoked Israeli retaliation.

  • For its part, Israel engaged in no violent provocations but ignored repeated entreaties by the UN to cease flyovers into Lebanese territory that were prohibited under the terms of their withdrawal.
  • Reading this, a few things grow clear:

  • It’s easy to understand why the Israelis insist that an immediate ceasefire and return to the status quo ante is unacceptable. They have been dealing with deadly Hezbollah attacks from So. Lebanon every few months for 6 years. The UN report vividly recounts the nasty festering on the border, showing the uselessness of international efforts to stop it. With Syria and Iran apparently seizing on Southern Lebanon as a proxy struggle for their own battles against the US, comforting though it might be to hope for a quick deal to return things to “normalcy”, that may may well not be possible

  • In its current form, the UN role in the region is failing completely. And yet, I also find myself thinking that when all is said and done here the UN—meaning some form of UN peace enforcement—may be the only hope for an answer.
  • Why the UN? Israel will not back off without an assurance that the days of untrammeled Hezbollah violence from the South Lebanon staging ground are over. The Lebanese government can’t and won’t assert its military to challenge Hezbollah, and yet they’re desperate for a cessation of the reciprocal bombardments now underway. Recognizing that there’s no country nor regional body that can viably step in, the Lebanese government has turned to the UN.

    Given the choices, it seems like a possible endgame, at least where Lebanon is concerned, is securing a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah under the guise of a UNSC resolution mandating the creation of a substantial peacekeeping mission providing highly trained troops charged with both reporting on violations but also enforcing the peace. This assumes that the combination of Arab ambivalence toward Hezbollah’s offensive, the Lebanese government’s begging, and international pressure on Iran and Syria to get Hezbollah to stand down are enough to convince the guerrillas that they will not win this showdown. These are huge ifs that cannot simply be wished away, but Condi Rice said this morning that she’d be prepared to start shuttle diplomacy once she could see a way forward for the conflict. A UN force might be that.

    Getting Security Council agreement to bulk up UNIFIL, the existing UN operation in Lebanon, may be tough, but it will be easier than it would be to establish an entirely new operation and mandate. Here are some of the harder questions that arise:

    Would UN peacekeepers in such a situation simply be set up for a repeat of Srebrenica — getting caught in the crossfire when there’s no peace to keep? That depends on whether a broadly backed ceasefire can be achieved which, in turn, hinges on how bold Hezbollah is and how broad their backers’ ambitions are. If they recognized they are up against one of the world most powerful and sophisticated militaries operating with broad international support, its hard to see how they don’t stand down. If that happens, UN troops would have a chance of stabilizing the situation.

    Is the UN capable of reining in a terrorist organization like Hezbollah, even one that’s publicly agreed to hold its fire? A big question, and one that might well have arisen in Iraq had the President heeded the widespread recommendation between 2002 and 2004 that a UN force be brought in to lead the stabilization process. A few things to keep in mind: a UN force is not really a UN force – its a force made up of troops contributed from around the world. If the UN, with US and other major power backing, is able to elicit the contribution of troops of sufficient experience and capabilities that would certainly help.

    Another key factor is the Lebanese people’s attitude toward the UN. If they are supportive of the ceasefire and of the UN presence, that could make it much tougher for Hezbollah to continue to operate. Having the UN take the lead in reconstruction and the delivery of social services could also detract from one of Hezbollah’s major selling points in the eyes of ordinary Lebanese. Finally, after the US experience in Iraq, there’s reason to think that if the UN isn’t up to this kind of mission, we’d better get it to be. After all, regardless of whether it happens in Pakistan, Nigeria or elsewhere, and whether it results from invasion or another cause like a coup, we don’t want to shoulder the next Iraq-style mission ourselves.

    What happens in Gaza? To solve Lebanon don’t you need to solve Gaza as well? Another good question. A few weeks ago I had hope that Mahmoud Abbas might have something up his sleeve, but now that seems impossible. It’s hard to see why Israel would accept the same kind of mid-grade warfare continuing out of Gaza that its saying is intolerable in the north. Yet calling on the UN to police both hotspots seems a recipe for dangerous overstretch

    Israel’s never trusted the UN, and for a reason. Why should it outsource its security now? Israel cannot sustain its onslaught indefinitely, and is facing deadly counterattacks. The creation of a UN peacekeeping operation would not forestall Israel’s right to defend itself. Rather, if it worked, it would forestall the need for it. Israel has learned the hard way that Lebanon is not up to the job of policing its Southern border. A UN option seems worth a try when compared to a resumption of the low-grade warfare of the last few years.