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Countdown to Conflict By: Olivier Guitta
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, November 22, 2006

In the wake of this summer’s bloody, 33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel, most analysts predicted that the region would never be the same. In fact, they asserted that with UN Resolution 1701, Hezbollah would be disarmed and expelled from its redoubt in southern Lebanon. This in turn would give effective control of the region to the Lebanese Army, while a UNIFIL force 15,000-men strong would secure the cease-fire and put an end to the armed conflict.

But the present reality is far from this rosy picture. Indeed, one can make the case that this summer’s hostilities have achieved little and that another war will resume in the near future.

A few prescient facts confirm this grim assessment. First, there is the anti-Israel composition of the Lebanese army. Forty percent of the 60,000-strong Lebanese army is composed of Shiite soldiers, many whom are extremely favorable to Hezbollah. There are also thousands of ex-Syrian troops, who joined the Lebanese Army when Syria “officially” left Lebanon last year, just before the Syrian withdrawal, when thousands of Syrian soldiers were naturalized and incorporated into the ranks of the army.

UNIFIL is scarcely an improvement. On the contrary, it is a disaster in waiting. Initially intended to number 15,000 soldiers, it is barely reaching 5,700. At the same time, countries like France are balking at sending additional troops to bolster the promised numbers. Understaffed and guided by an unclear mandate, UNIFIL troops are unwilling to tame Hezbollah. Proof for this proposition comes from a recent episode, wherein Spanish troops stood down at the mere sight of Hezbollah fighters. One of the Spanish patrol leaders explained that UNIFIL’s role was only to “observe changes in behavior of the local population.”

On top of that, no UNIFIL patrols are carried out at night, for safety reasons. UN soldiers, feeling that they are increasingly viewed by the local population as an occupation force, are more interested in leaving than confronting Hezbollah: they are clearly worried about potential Hezbollah terror attacks. Such an attack would mirror the terrorist group’s October 1983 bombing, which killed 241 U.S. troops and 58 French troops. A few months later, multinational forces were gone. This time, the strategy appears to be preemptive retreat: A European diplomat was recently quoted as saying that, after an attack on UNIFIL, international forces would be gone within three days.

To sum up the situation: the Lebanese Army is watching UNIFIL watching Hezbollah. Thus it is far from surprising that Hezbollah is fast rearming through Syria, right under the nose of UNIFIL troops and the Lebanese Army, a fact confirmed by U.N. Special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. But while UNIFIL does not seem particularly concerned with Hezbollah’s buildup, it is focusing on Israel’s violations of Lebanese airspace. Significantly, however, these incursions occur because Israel is compelled to fulfill UNIFIL’s mandate, which is to arrest -- and not simply to observe -- Hezbollah’s rearmament. France in particular has threatened to punish Israel while permitting Hezbollah to operate with impunity.

No one should be surprised that even French President Chirac is now counting on a maximum of four to five months of calm for the region. A likely scenario includes Hezbollah again controlling South Lebanon and launching attacks against Israel. This could be accelerated if Syria succeeds in igniting a civil war by pushing Hezbollah and its Shiite allies, including Christian General Aoun, towards a major confrontation with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the March 14 Forces, a coalition of political parties headed by Saad Hariri, the son of Lebanon’s assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri. The recent resignation of Shiite ministers from the Siniora government is the first sign of this process. In the worst-case scenario, the chaos could reach Western shores if Hezbollah decides, on the orders of Iran, to start a terror campaign in the West or against Western targets, as it did in France in 1986.

In the meantime, one thing seems clear. This summer’s Israel-Hezbollah standoff marked not the end of a conflict but the beginning of a broader war that seems likely to reignite before long.

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Olivier Guitta is a Washington DC based foreign affairs consultant.

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