Weak UN mandate stalls Lebanon peacekeepers

European leaders don't want to send in their forces unless their mission and means are better defined.

Smugglers, armed clans, hidden weapons, interfering neighbors, and enemy combatants with their fingers on their triggers. That is the landscape in Lebanon, and those are some of the reasons why it is proving so difficult to get a beefed-up United Nations peacekeeping force on the ground in south Lebanon.

The UN and the United States have called on Europe to rush troops to Lebanon to enforce the week-old cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah fighters. But European leaders are hesitating, saying they don't want to send their soldiers into such a treacherous situation unless their mission and means are more clearly defined.

"If the mandate isn't clear, it won't work," says Jean Vincent Brisset, a French Army general and analyst with the Institute for International Relations in Paris. "Obviously in this case, it's not clear."

Although Italy has now offered to lead the force and President Bush said on Monday that its rules of engagement would eventually have to be clarified, little is expected to change on the ground until European Union foreign ministers hold consultations later this week.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who said he is willing to commit up to 3,000 soldiers, has called for a meeting of the EU's security councilby Friday. EU foreign ministers were also scheduled to meet in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss the UN's request for troops.

The UN cease-fire resolution adopted earlier this month calls for up to 15,000 multinational troops to fortify UNIFIL, the existing UN observer force that has operated in Lebanon for the past 28 years. The new force would assist the Lebanese Army in taking control of south Lebanon where Hizbullah has ruled for years.

Because of opposition from the Lebanese government, which includes Hizbullah cabinet ministers, the resolution did not give the force broad rules of engagement that would have allowed peacekeepers to take offensive action.

France was widely expected to take the lead in reinforcing UNIFIL, which is now led by a French general. But it refused, citing the limited authority for the force. In an interview last week, Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie explained the decision by saying, "You cannot send out men and tell them that they should watch what's happening but that they have no right to defend themselves or fire."

Draft rules of engagement for the force have been circulating at the UN. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, which said Tuesday that it obtained a version distributed last Friday, the UN force was defined as a defensive mission but could use "appropriate" and "proportional" force to protect itself and civilians under threat.

Other European countries, including Italy, have echoed the French concerns, saying the mandate has to be broadened so that the UN force has a clear agenda.

"The problem is, what should the force do?" says General Brisset. "If the Lebanese have a problem disarming Hizbullah, will this force come out and fire on Hizbullah? And if the Israelis send in commandos to assassinate Hizbullah leaders, does the force sit there and let it happen?"

Such concerns are valid, according to a former UNIFIL official. "The whole thing missing in this debate is a sense of realism," says Timor Goksel, the former UNIFIL spokesman who worked with the force for 24 years. "It's mind-boggling how naive this plan is."

As the new peacekeeping force is now defined, he says, it depends on the willingness of a weak Lebanese government and an untested Lebanese Army. Smugglers have also crisscrossed the borders for centuries and Hizbullah has strong links in the villages and clans of south Lebanon.

"What is an international force going to do in this environment?" says Mr. Goksel, now a professor at the American University in Beirut.

"Do you take on the families that have been smuggling for 200 years?" he asks. "The UNIFIL forces were allowed to fire in self-defense, but most countries never even wanted to do that. You can't sustain it because you'd be taking on the local people and then you become part of the problem, not the solution"

The European Union meetings this week – aimed at reaching a consensus on what members need to see in the forthcoming UN rules of engagement – are expected to hash out questions like those, as well as concerns over command of any European forces that might ultimately be deployed in Lebanon.

"The EU will try to arrive at a joint understanding of what this conflict is about, what the logical next step should be, and the responsibilities of all the parties involved," says Henning Riecke, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations. "The point is that although the UN resolution is written, it contains a number of contradictions and a lot of details have to be worked out first."

The EU, he says, could end up simply taking on the role of coordinator for humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

France has had 200 soldiers working with UNIFIL and this week sent an additional 200 to join them. It also has about 1,700 troops in the area who were involved in the evacuation of French nationals during the war.

Those troops are now under French command, and experts here say France is unlikely to agree that they come under UN military control. One formula that might ease such concerns has been used in the Congo, where European soldiers are part of a larger UN force but remain under European command.

Germany is generally willing to send troops to Lebanon. But it also has many questions, including concerns about how an international force would have to deal with Israel, says Mr. Riecke.

"Sending troops to the Middle East is in German interests because we have the existence and security of the Israeli state at the top of our foreign policy agenda," he says. "But there are questions about what Israel is allowed to do. It can take defensive actions, for example, but what does that really mean? The whole war has been a defensive action."

Even Italy, with its offer to lead the force and send troops, appeared to have doubts.

Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, in an interview with La Repubblica newspaper published Tuesday, noted that Israeli troops had fired on Hizbullah fighters after the cease-fire went into effect. He warned that no Italian troops would be dispatched if Israel "keeps shooting."

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