Thursday, June 5, 2008

Next step: undermining Resolution 1701

Next step: undermining Resolution 1701
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, June 05, 2008

The most worrying development in the coming months in Lebanon may be only partly visible today: a concerted effort by Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah to undermine United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which, with Resolution 1559, is at the core of international decisions to bolster a sovereign Lebanese state with absolute control over its territory.

In an NBN interview on Tuesday, Hizbullah's Nawwaf al-Musawi said something both revealing and remarkable. He observed that upcoming security appointments were important because they "affect the security of the resistance." At this stage it's official, any government decision that Hizbullah opposes can be described as harming the resistance. But more disturbing was another reading of Musawi's statement, one we should place against the backdrop of the Abdeh bomb explosion at a military intelligence post last weekend, for which Fatah al-Islam claimed responsibility.

Michel Suleiman's election as president means a successor needs to be found as army commander, which suggests that someone new is also expected to take over as military intelligence chief. The Abdeh explosion was Syria's message to Suleiman and the army that it wants individuals it can trust to be named to senior military positions. That's because for all the debate over Fatah al-Islam's origins during the Nahr al-Bared fighting, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the organization, or what remains of it, is mainly an instrument of Syrian policy today - a stick to destabilize Lebanon under the guise of Sunni militancy.

If so, what does this have to do with Resolution 1701? Here is a scenario we should watch out for. The Syrians, who have not given up on re-imposing their writ in Lebanon and whose offer of diplomatic relations with Beirut will do little to change this, have several priorities. The first is to open a dialogue with the United States once the Bush administration leaves office. The way ahead is to pursue negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights. However, Syria is less interested in the final outcome of such negotiations than in the process itself, because it is that process that might ensure improved relations with Washington while eroding international determination to press forward with the Hariri tribunal, whose establishment is already proving to be lethargic at best.

It is very doubtful that Syria will carry on serious negotiations without ensuring, first, that it has military leverage over Israel through the southern Lebanese border. Damascus may not necessarily want talks to reach a conclusion now, but it does have to prepare for the possibility of an eventual breakthrough. As far as President Bashar Assad is concerned, a Golan deal is important principally if Lebanon is part of the package. In other words, Syria gets the Golan but is also granted effective hegemony over Lebanon - an arrangement with which the Israelis have no problem, nor did when they were bargaining with Hafez Assad during the 1990s.

The Syrians can hit these two birds with one stone by ensuring that Hizbullah resumes its military operations in South Lebanon. The attacks would provide Syria with the leverage it seeks but also revitalize a Hizbullah threat that Assad will insist only Syria can resolve by again being granted considerable leeway in Lebanon. Ultimately, the Syrians hope, that would mean a return of their army and intelligence network in some capacity. Iran and Hizbullah would, for a time at least, see an advantage in this as it would protect Hizbullah's weapons against the growing demands for disarmament of the party inside Lebanon while allowing it to resume fighting, despite resolutions 1559 and 1701.

For Hizbullah to reopen the southern border, three conditions must be met: Resolution 1701 must be rendered ineffective; Hizbullah must not be seen as responsible for reigniting the southern front, since most Shiites have no desire to be brutalized by Israel yet again; and the Lebanese Army command must cooperate with Hizbullah in the border area. That latter prerequisite explains the Abdeh explosion and Musawi's statement.

Resolution 1701 is only as effective as the will of the international community and of UNIFIL, the United Nations force in South Lebanon. What better way to break that will than to restart bomb attacks against UNIFIL's contingents, and blame Fatah al-Islam - in other words Sunni Islamists - for this? Given France's impetuousness in wanting to reopen ties with Syria after the Doha agreement; given that neither Italy nor Spain, two other key members of UNIFIL, is likely to stand firm if the bombings begin in earnest; and given that ongoing Syrian-Israeli talks will considerably lower international incentive to punish Damascus for whatever goes wrong in the border area, this may prove quite easy. The fact that the attacks are allegedly the work of Sunni militants would cover Hizbullah vis-a-vis its own electorate, allow the party's media to once more highlight the alleged links between Fatah al-Islam and the Future Movement, and let Hizbullah exploit instability in the border area to provoke Israeli actions justifying a resumption of armed resistance.

What would the objective be? Some have suggested Syria, Iran and Hizbullah want a new arrangement in the South similar to the April Understanding of 1996, legitimizing Hizbullah military action through new "rules of the game" between the party and Israel. That seems a plausible theory, if it can be managed. But there are some question marks. In the long term, Hizbullah would welcome a Syrian return to Lebanon, but realizes that any final Israeli-Syrian settlement, even with Lebanon in Syrian hands, could be curtains for the resistance. It's equally unclear how Hizbullah might use possible attacks by alleged Sunni Islamists against UNIFIL to validate its own military operations. And will the Lebanese Army be as pliant as Hizbullah and Syria want it to be, or does the presence of Michel Suleiman, no enemy of Syria but also the main beneficiary of a stronger Lebanese state, make this less likely?

These uncertainties notwithstanding, Resolution 1701 has been in the crosshairs of Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah for some time. With the Bush administration on its way out, the Europeans ripe to end Syria's isolation, Syria's Arab foes anemic, Israel little interested in reinforcing the UN's credibility in Lebanon, and the Hariri tribunal looking like an afterthought, now may be the ideal time to begin chopping down the edifice built up in Lebanon by the Security Council between 2004 and 2006. Assad is in the driver's seat and no one seems willing to stop him.

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