Monday, September 25, 2006

Redefining "Robust"

New York Times - One month after a United Nations Security Council resolution ended a 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, members of the international force sent to help keep the peace say their mission is defined more by what they cannot do than by what they can.

They say they cannot set up checkpoints, search cars, homes or businesses or detain suspects. If they see a truck transporting missiles, for example, they say they can not stop it. They cannot do any of this, they say, because under their interpretation of the Security Council resolution that deployed them, they must first be authorized to take such action by the Lebanese Army.

The job of the United Nations force, and commanders in the field repeat this like a mantra, is to respect Lebanese sovereignty by supporting the Lebanese Army. They will only do what the Lebanese authorities ask.

The Security Council resolution, known as 1701, was seen at the time as the best way to halt the war, partly by giving Israel assurances that Lebanon’s southern border would be policed by a robust international force to prevent Hezbollah militants from attacking. When the resolution was approved, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, one of its principal architects, said the force’s deployment would help “protect the Lebanese people and prevent armed groups such as Hezbollah from destabilizing the area.”

But the resolution’s diplomatic language skirted a fundamental question: what kind of policing power would be given to the international force? The resolution leaves open the possibility that the Lebanese Army would grant such policing power, but the force’s commanders say that so far, at least, that has not happened.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding what we are doing here,” said Lt. Col. Stefano Cappellaro, an Italian commander with the San Marco Regiment.

The force, known as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or Unifil, now has 5,000 troops on the ground, including 1,000 from Italy, and is stepping gently as it tries to carve out a role in a country that is feeling its way through the postwar period. It is early in the United Nations mission, but officials say that their most difficult task, and one they are adamant about achieving, is not being drawn into any power struggles between the religious and political factions in Lebanon. “We will not get involved in any domestic or regional politics,’’ said Milos Strugar, senior adviser to the force.

So while there may have been some expectation that the international force would disarm or restrain Hezbollah, or search for hidden weapons caches, the commanders on the ground say very clearly that those tasks are not their job for now. “We will advise, help and assist the Lebanese forces,” said Col. Rosario Walter Guerrisi, commander of the San Marco Regiment, referring to the Lebanese Army.

But the challenges facing their determined neutrality are significant and often beyond their control. In Syria, for example, President Bashar al-Assad was reported in the Lebanese news media to have told a visiting Lebanese delegation that the strengthened United Nations force, with its heavy European contingent, resembled a force from NATO. In Lebanon, the United Nations force found its credibility questioned when German officials said that their country would contribute to the naval patrols off the coast of Lebanon as a means to protect Israel.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has also questioned the purpose of the expanded force.

“Thus far, I have not heard any country participating in the Unifil say that it sent its sons and soldiers to defend Lebanon and the Lebanese,” he said in a speech Friday before hundreds of thousands of his supporters. “They are ashamed of us, brothers and sisters. They are ashamed of saying they came to defend us, but they talk about defending Israel.”

Hezbollah has so far acted in accordance with the cease-fire terms of 1701, which prohibits the deployment of weapons south of the Litani River, close to the Israeli border.

When the United Nations Security Council passed 1701, which set up the cease-fire, it outlined basic principles with few specifics. One of those principles was that militias were to be disarmed in compliance with earlier agreements and resolutions. It did not say, though, that the United Nations force would carry that out.

Hezbollah, the only militia that did not lay down its weapons after the Lebanese civil war ended, has made it clear that it is not going to surrender those weapons now. And Sheik Nasrallah made it clear that the international forces had better not even think about trying.

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Then I hope their UN mandate allows them to dodge Israeli artillery shells.