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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Flying the cedar flag


The Lebanese army is preparing to take on the role of filling the security vacuum in the south after Israel withdraws. What chance does it have of success in this hazardous mission?

The decision of the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, to call up his army's reserves in preparation for the deployment of some 15,000 government troops in South Lebanon constitutes a bold assertion of his battered country's sovereignty. It is evidently meant to buttress his demand for changes to the proposed UN resolution on the conflict, in particular the requirement for Israeli forces to withdraw from positions that they have occupied inside Lebanese territory over the past three weeks. However, the somewhat patronising response that Mr Siniora has received from the US and Israel to his proposal belies the difficulty that he faces in presenting the army as a credible force for ensuring stability in the south--Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in effect, damned Mr Siniora with faint praise by describing the proposal as "interesting", while the US, after initially dismissing the Lebanese prime minister's protestations as "emotional", later acknowledged that the troops proposal was potentially "significant". France, the co-sponsor of the UN resolution, has responded in a more positive vein.

Hizbullah on board?

Mr Siniora has emphasised that the proposal to send the Lebanese army south to take over control in areas currently occupied by Israel enjoys the unanimous support of the government, including the two Hizbullah members of the cabinet and the Syrian-influenced president, Emile Lahoud. The is clearly intended as an assurance that the army has sufficient political cover to be able to prevent Hizbullah from moving back into the border area as soon as the Israelis pull out. The Shia political/guerrilla organisation has also lent its name to the cabinet decision of July 27th which includes the stipulation that "there will be no weapons or authority other than that of the Lebanese state" in the entire territory of Lebanon.

The difficulty for Mr Siniora is that Hizbullah's acquiescence in Lebanese cabinet decisions by no means constitutes an explicit willingness to disarm, and it remains doubtful whether the Lebanese army would want to risk putting this to the test. Hizbullah has controlled large tracts of Lebanese territory for many years, and has developed into a highly effective military force in its own environment, thanks to intensive training and substantial support from Iran and Syria. At the same time, the group has become adept at maintaining a low profile--this has helped it to ward off Israeli attacks, but its skills in this area could also be used to enable it, in effect, to "disappear" as a military force.

The Lebanese army has been carefully reconstituted since the civil war--during which it fell apart on sectarian lines--came to an end in 1990, but it remains poorly equipped and politically vulnerable. A large portion of its lower ranks are drawn from the same Shia community as Hizbullah, and many of its senior officers have undergone training in Syria. Even if the army could establish a modus vivendi with Hizbullah (the army commander, Michel Suleiman, is said to have good contacts with the group's military leaders), it would be in no position to repulse Israeli thrusts, were Israel to claim that insufficient efforts were being made to disarm the Shia movement.

Army plus

However, the offer to put the Lebanese army in this position could yet open the way for the UN Security Council to refine its resolution in such a way as the address some of the Lebanese concerns. This could entail inserting a clause calling for Israeli forces to be withdrawn within a reasonable period, and for their replacement with Lebanese army units supported by international forces that would provide military back-up and would be required to verify that the army was not being used by Hizbullah as a cover to enable it to regroup.

While the deliberations go on, Israel is likely to concentrate on seeking to inflict maximum damage on Hizbullah ahead of any cessation of hostilities.

Source: ViewsWire Middle East
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