After Syria, a UN role in Lebanon?

Many reject the idea of UN peacekeepers. Monday, more than 500,000 attended an anti-Syrian rally in Beirut.

The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon has spurred some members of the United Nations Security Council to assess the possibility of dispatching a stabilization force to fill any security vacuum that might arise.

After all, the Lebanese government for years has justified Syria's troop presence by saying it was helping ensure peace and that a hasty departure could destabilize the country that has a history of civil war between its many competing sectarian and political influences.

Past peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon have ranged from the disastrous Multi-National Force (MNF) mission in 1983 - that was driven out of Beirut by a barrage of suicide bombers - to the impotent UN peacekeeping effort in south Lebanon.

Although no concrete steps have been taken by the UN, for Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut and former senior adviser to the UN Interim Force In South Lebanon (UNIFIL), sending peacekeepers to Lebanon to replace Syrian troops would be a "monumental blunder."

"I cannot see a United Nations security force taking over from the Syrians. It would be suicidal," he says.

The Syrians began pulling back their forces last week in the first part of a two-phase redeployment that will eventually lead to a full withdrawal. Some 4,000 of the 14,000 soldiers have returned to Syria, while another 4,000 joined the 6,000 troops already deployed in the Bekaa Valley in east Lebanon near the Syrian border.

As the redeployment continued Monday, hundred of thousands of anti-Syrian protesters gathered in central Beirut in the biggest rally yet to commemorate the assassination four weeks ago of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. A crowd estimated at well over 500,000 crammed into Martyrs' Square, waving red and white Lebanese flags.

The Syrian troop withdrawal has inflamed passions in Lebanon and spurred a series of anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian rallies, underlining concerns that the departure of Syrian forces is polarizing Lebanese society.

Three weeks ago, Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami warned that a Syrian troop withdrawal could destabilize the country and questioned whether the Lebanese Army was up to the job of handling internal security.

"We tried this before," he said, referring to the collapse of the Lebanese Army when it was ordered to intervene in the 1975-1990 civil war. "Do we want to try this again, and at what cost?"

But diplomats in Beirut believe that the Army is capable of handling internal security and that Mr. Karami's comments were a last ditch effort to stave off a Syrian withdrawal.

A UN official in Lebanon says that talks within the Security Council on the deployment of a peacekeeping force was in the "early stages" and that "nothing concrete" has been planned. The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, earlier this month suggested that the 2,000-strong UNIFIL could be deployed from its current location in south Lebanon to areas from which the Syrians are withdrawing.

But now that the departure of Syrian forces is a reality, the Lebanese government is not considering requesting a stabilization force, according to an official at the Lebanese foreign ministry.

Lebanon's Hizbullah organization also has rejected the idea of foreign troops being sent to Lebanon. "There's no link between a withdrawal of Syrian forces and an outside force coming in," says Mohammed Afif, a senior Hizbullah spokesman. "To say that the departure of the Syrians leaves a void is wrong. The Syrians helped create peace in Lebanon."

Lebanon has a history of being unkind to international peacekeepers.

In 1958, during Lebanon's first civil war, the US Marines were sent to Lebanon to support Lebanese President Camille Chamoun. As the Sixth Fleet approached Beirut, the US ambassador, Robert McClintock, convinced that the Lebanese Army was capable of halting the violence, ordered his naval attaché to sail out to sea to stop the Marines from landing. The attaché was ignored and the heavily armed marines stormed the beaches at Khalde at the southern end of Beirut to find themselves confronted by bemused bikini-clad sunbathers.

Marines returned to Beirut in 1982 as part of the four-nation MNF to oversee the evacuation of Palestinian guerrillas from Beirut after Israel invaded Lebanon. Initially welcomed by the Lebanese, attitudes changed when the US Navy, stationed off the Beirut coast, began shelling the positions of militias opposed to Lebanese President Amin Gemayel. Suddenly, the Americans had become just another militia in the eyes of the Lebanese. On the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden truck into the US Marine barracks beside Beirut airport. The blast killed 241 American servicemen. The French paratroop barracks was hit simultaneously by another suicide bomber, killing 58 soldiers. The MNF withdrew four months later.

Then there is UNIFIL, the UN peacekeepers deployed in south Lebanon in March 1978, days after Israeli staged its first invasion. UNIFIL was tasked with overseeing the withdrawal of Israeli forces. But the Israeli Army never left, and UNIFIL found itself wedged between Palestinian guerrillas to the north and Israeli troops and their mainly Christian militia allies to the south. In the end it was the unstinting campaign of resistance waged by Lebanese Hizbullah guerrilla fighters that compelled Israel to withdraw its troops in May 2000.

Mr. Goksel served with UNIFIL from 1979 to 2003 and is well aware of the inherent risks of well-intentioned foreign armies descending upon Lebanon. "There is no external force that can fill the void left by the Syrians," he says. "This is an internal policing matter, not a role for peacekeepers. If you get involved in local politics, then you become part of the problem not part of the solution."

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