Many European nations would dearly love to send troops to a Lebanon peacekeeping force and so establish a presence in the Middle East for the first time in recent history (but for a brief and disastrous interlude in Beirut for the French military in 1983).
The temptations are manifold. But so are the reasons for the Europeans to stay out.
If France, Belgium and Italy were to consign several thousand troops each to UNIFIL and were joined by Greece, Finland, Spain and Holland, an independent European task force some 10,000-strong, equipped with air and naval units, could plant its feet in the Middle East.
This force would be outside NATO – and therefore American – bounds.
Success in boosting the 60,000-strong Lebanese army (40% of whom are Shiites) sufficiently to extend the Fouad Siniora government’s sovereignty to the whole of Lebanon, in keeping with UN Security Council resolution 1701, would earn Europe the credit for having gone one better in Lebanon than the United States in Iraq.
As peacekeepers, they could pull this feat off without having to fight anyone or even disarming Hizballah. It should not be too hard to persuade Siniora and Hassan Nasrallah to go along with the pretence that Hizballah’s armed militia has been integrated in the national army of Lebanon, exactly like the Shiite Badr Organization and Wolves have been ostensibly incorporated in the Iraqi national army.
European imaginations and ambitions soar way beyond Lebanon.
Its capitals were abuzz this week with talk of a revamped UNIFIL under a combined European command serving as the military arm of the European Union.
After pacifying Lebanon, units of the force could be relocated to the Palestinian Authority as a buffer between the Palestinians and Israel in Gaza and the West Bank.
In Rome and Madrid, some were enthusiastic enough to postulate European contingents for Iraq as dividers between American forces and insurgents until US troops are ready to depart Iraq.
A strong European military presence in Lebanon in harmony with Hizballah – instead of at odds with the group – is depicted by some official circles in Paris and Rome as an asset that could help mend fences with Tehran.
Chirac wants to go back to his Levant partnership with Bush
It would enable Europe to step forward as a useful middleman between Tehran and Washington. (The fiasco of the European tri-power foray into diplomacy to solve the Iranian nuclear dispute is relegated to the past.)
President Jacques Chirac of France and Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, in particular, advise against pronouncing diplomacy dead on the Iranian nuclear dispute.
Once their troops are ensconced in Lebanon and in rapport with Hizballah, they seem to believe they can resuscitate the failed European diplomatic initiative in time to stop the UN Security Council passing sanctions against Iran for its uranium enrichment violations.
However, France’s moves on the force have been uncertain – starting on a high note, plunging into uncertainty and not beginning to recover until Thursday, Aug. 24.
In the second half of July, Chirac was on the phone to US president George W. Bush promoting a lead role for France in a UN force that both were keen to establish in Lebanon.
The French president described France’s role in a future international force as embodying the revival of the French-US partnership on Lebanon and Syria which prevailed before and after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.
He reminded Bush, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington, that in March 2006, they had agreed to reinstate their understanding which assigned Lebanon to the French sphere of influence, in return for Paris’s supportive non-interference in American moves against Syrian president Bashar Asad.
Chirac then pointed out that he had 1,700 French marines at his disposal aboard a French task force of three warships which had been cruising in the eastern Mediterranean ever since the Lebanon war flared on July 12. Those marines, beefed up by 1,500 Foreign Legionnaires – a total of 3,500 French servicemen – could be ready to land in Lebanon the minute a Security Council resolution was in the bag.
A French military presence in Lebanon, said Chirac, could serve as a back channel for exchanges between Paris and Tehran on the nuclear question.
A back channel through Lebanon’s Hizballah to Tehran…
Bush welcomed the French proposal and the two presidents agreed that secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy would work together on a Lebanon draft calling for a cessation of hostilities and establishing a multinational stabilization force. On August 11 the text was adopted by all 15 SC members as Resolution 1701.
But all of a sudden, even before the ceasefire went into effect on August 14, the French got cold feet.
Bush was not surprised.
Advisers at the National Security Council familiar with French ways warned him and Rice not to expect too much. The French might make all the right preparations for landing a substantial force in Lebanon and even deploy a carrier to lay on air cover and support, but in the end, they would back out. According to these American analysts, French politicians tend to be all big talk with little or nothing to show for it.
As it turned out, a disappointing 50 of the promised 3,500 French soldiers actually set foot on a South Lebanese beach and teamed up with UNIFIL. As members of an engineering unit, they were qualified only for repairing bridges and buildings.
This week, as the ceasefire looked like foundering, a fresh approach was made to France. Thursday night, Chirac came through with a pledge of 1,600 French troops to UNIFIL after all.
Belgium may be the next in line. The Belgian foreign minister Karel De Gucht has been circulating around the Middle East to look into the feasibility of a Belgian contingent. Italy may come next, if its conditions are met and the difficulties not prohibitive.
One is the ominous warning from Damascus that any foreign troops posted on the Lebanese-Syria frontier would be deemed a hostile presence. This threat could affect the European units’ willingness to monitor the frontiers and enforce the UN embargo on arms from Syria and Iran to Hizballah.
…Or a hornets’ nest more virulent than Iraq
French intelligence has also learned of a plan hatched by Syrian military intelligence and Hizballah to stage a series of suicide attacks on any French forces deployed in Lebanon. Damascus is seeking revenge for France’s alliance with Washington against President Assad.
But, as Chirac disclosed Thursday, France has won UN assurances on the command structure of the expanded force and rules of engagement that will let the troops defend themselves effectively.
The Lebanese government has still to approve the French deployment.
Italy’s possible contribution to the international force met with approval from an unforeseen quarter: Tehran. The Iranians, who studied the performance of Italian troops stationed in Nasiriya, southern Iraq, decided that an Italian or Spanish troop presence in south Lebanon would help rather than hinder Hizballah.
And indeed Italian foreign minister Massimo D’Alema made it clear this week that Italian troops in Lebanon would not open fire before obtaining Hizballah’s permission.
Prodi is deemed by Tehran sufficiently antagonistic to the United States and its Middle East objectives to be useful to Iran’s interests in Lebanon and active in driving a wedge between Europe and Washington.
At the same time, as the week wore on, Prodi’s enthusiasm for the project waned. Our Rome sources report that the heads of Italy’s armed forces and intelligence took their prime minister aside and warned him of the dangers of dropping Italian soldiers in a hornets’ nest more virulent even than Iraq.
For the moment the Europeans, though interested, are still more out than in the multinational force in Lebanon, looking warily at a host of hazards.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sets out on a mission Friday, Aug. 25, to salvage the multination force, starting in Brussels. He then heads to the Middle East. Even the optimists do not expect him to collect more than 6,000 troops, less than half the target set by the UN Security Council.