Thursday, June 28, 2007

The dismantling of Resolution 1701

The dismantling of Resolution 1701
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, June 28, 2007

For those following events in South Lebanon, the deadly attack on Sunday against soldiers of the Spanish contingent of UNIFIL was expected. Among the United Nations troops, it was the Spaniards who had the reputation for most forcefully implementing their mandate. The undermining of UN Security Resolution 1701 has, plainly, started. However, before we assume that the South is on the verge of turning into a new Iraq, with foreign troops transformed into walking targets, a more subtle degradation of the resolution may be in the works.

There were probably two principal reasons, aside from the kill factor, for the car-bomb attack against the soldiers. The first was to make UNIFIL more timorous in its patrolling of the border area, in such a way that, with the removal of Lebanese Army units to fight in Nahr al-Bared, more room would be cleared up for Hizbullah to rebuild its military infrastructure south of the Litani River. That's not to say that Hizbullah detonated the device that killed the UN soldiers, but it's very difficult to accept that the party was unaware of what was about to take place. Hizbullah, for all its declarations of sympathy for UNIFIL, views the international force and the Lebanese Army as grave obstacles to the pursuit of "resistance" in the South. For an organization that could not survive without armed struggle, that recently saw its Hamas comrades establish an autonomous territory alongside Israel in Gaza, now is the time to act, in collaboration with Iran and Syria, to again make of South Lebanon a front line against Israel.

The attack was also a warning to the UN not to contemplate sending observers along the Syrian-Lebanese border to prevent the supply of weapons to Hizbullah. Syrian officials have consistently spoken against such a deployment, and even threatened to close the borders with Lebanon. However, it's not clear the Syrians can do so without Iraq and Jordan closing their crossing points with Syria. Amman and Baghdad have not publicly said they would retaliate in this way, but there were reports last week that they might, which supposedly prompted Damascus to leave the Masnaa crossing open. If the information is correct, then Syria's most effective way of blocking an observer mission might be to hit UNIFIL through its Palestinian proxies in Lebanon, showing what would happen if the force expanded out of the South.

Even an academic sympathetic to the Syrian regime saw its hand in what happened last weekend. On his blog, Joshua Landis wrote: "I think the bombing of the UNIFIL troops was an indication of the troubles that the UN can look forward to if it presses the Syrians or their ally Hizbullah."

The oddest statement, however, came from the Siniora government. Information Minister Ghazi Aridi noted that "[t]here is a link between the attack which targeted the Spanish contingent of UNIFIL and the fighting between the Lebanese Army and the terrorists of Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared." He went on to say, "Lebanon is the victim of a terrorist wave striking from the North to the South in which the latest target was the Spanish contingent. This attack was preceded by confessions from arrested terrorists about preparations against UNIFIL."

You have to wonder what Aridi was talking about. He and his political allies have been arguing, with considerable legitimacy, that Lebanon is today facing a Syrian effort to return to the country and torpedo the Hariri tribunal. In that case why fall back on a charade - a Syrian-created charade at that - that everything going wrong is the work of an obscure Salafist group facing annihilation in Nahr al-Bared? Once that fight is over and the bombings and killings continue, who will the Siniora government then blame? Indeed, who do we blame for the bombings and killings in 2005, when Fatah al-Islam wasn't even present in Lebanon?

Perhaps the Siniora government doesn't want to state the obvious: that what is going on in the South might involve Hizbullah more than it is prudent to admit at a moment of ambient sectarian tension. Maybe that's why Walid Jumblatt last week thanked Hizbullah for distancing itself from the rocket attack against Kiryat Shmona two Sundays ago. However, for the government to keep lines open is different than falling back on an absurd line of reasoning where it only discredits itself. By going along with the argument that an alleged Al-Qaeda group is the one targeting UNIFIL, the authorities are downplaying that what is taking place is the methodical dismantling of Resolution 1701. And that's not Al-Qaeda's priority; it is Iran's and Syria's priority, and Hizbullah's.

The killing of the soldiers is worrisome for other reasons. If the European contingents that form the backbone of UNIFIL become more timid in the South (and according to a senior March 14 politician, the Sunday bombing "scared" their governments), there is a risk that they will become gradually more dependent on Hizbullah, which has the most interest in neutralizing their mandate. Already, the word out among many journalists is that Hizbullah is protecting UNIFIL forces far more than UNIFIL is protecting the inhabitants of South Lebanon. If that view becomes generalized, if it reflects the reality of the situation in the border area, than we can start kissing Resolution 1701 goodbye.

Perhaps most disquieting is that if the UNIFIL mandate begins breaking apart, it will be Israel that looks for ways around Resolution 1701 to defend its northern border. This would suit Hizbullah and its Iranian and Syrian patrons just fine, since it's the Israelis who would take the blame for returning South Lebanon to where it was before the summer 2006 war.

But the Israeli shift may come with an addendum: the next war in Lebanon, if there is one, could become a regional war. That's why the UN must do some serious thinking about how to respond to the Sunday bombing, beyond issuing verbal condemnations. And that's why it must press forward with controlling the Syrian-Lebanese border, even if there are electronic means to ensure that UN troops are not sitting ducks.

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