Wednesday, August 16, 2006

UN fudges the real issues

Amir Taheri, Gulf News:
It may take weeks, if not months, before the ceasefire ordered in Lebanon by the United Nations Security Council is established and tested on the ground. However, one thing is already certain: the deeper causes of the war remain unchanged and could undermine the hoped-for ceasefire at any time.

Those who drafted the ceasefire resolution ignored the crucial fact that the Israel-Hezbollah duel was not prompted by classical considerations such as territory, borders or levels of military build-up. This was an existential struggle between two foes that regard the annihilation of each other as the only worthy goal.

While many might welcome any ceasefire as a means of alleviating the suffering of civilians on both sides, a closer analysis might reveal a very different picture. The ceasefire, as structured, may well create more problems than it solves, ultimately sowing the seeds of an even larger and deadlier conflict. READ MORE

As always, the latest UN resolution is designed to fudge the real issues. It does not provide for an immediate release of the Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah a move that triggered the war in the first place. Nor does it echo Hezbollah's demands that Israel free Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. It also ignores Security Council Resolution 1559, passed two years ago and calling for Hezbollah's disarmament as a step towards giving the legitimate Lebanese government a monopoly of armed forces in the country.

This vagueness might enable Israel to pursue its campaign to "clean" the south from Hezbollah missile sites and hideouts even after a ceasefire has come into effect. However, it could also be interpreted by Hezbollah as an amber light for continuing some operations against Israeli units inside Lebanon. There is also no guarantee that Hezbollah will not adopt tactics employed by guerrilla forces elsewhere by accepting a ceasefire while prompting "rogue elements" to continue their attacks on the enemy. There is, of course, also no guarantee that Israel will not use covert operations to defang Hezbollah or even subject its leaders to targeted killings.

More importantly, the resolution assumes a measure of moral equality between the two protagonists, thus confirming their deep distrust of international institutions.

The biggest damage that the UN might do is to prevent the two protagonists from discovering each other's threshold of pain. Throughout history, wars ended when one side in the conflict proved that it could suffer more pain than the other could. That discovery always persuaded the weaker side not only to stop fighting but also to abandon its bellicose dreams.

An adversary's threshold of pain is not solely determined by the size of its population, the strength of its economy or even the power of its military. It is quite possible for a much larger power to have a lower threshold of pain compared to smaller ones. Numerous other factors intervene to determine the threshold of pain, among them the determination of the leadership, the readiness of the public to take risks and the ability to win allies and mobilise international goodwill and support.

Threshold of pain

Because of UN intervention, Israel and Hezbollah would not discover each other's threshold of pain this time round. And, this could encourage them to keep war alive as a low-cost option, thus weakening any argument for a genuine political settlement.

Without wishing to echo doomsayers, it is imperative to signal the possibility that the UN intervention could create an even bigger mess in southern Lebanon, an area of just over 1,000 square kilometres. To these are to be added between 15,000 and 30,000 men from the Lebanese National Army along with another 15,000 men in a multinational force led by France. Add to these the estimated 5,000 fighters of Hezbollah who are unlikely either to disarm or go on holiday and you may end up with an average of 50 armed men per square kilometre. Even if all the 150,000 displaced population of the area returned home, we would still have the highest ratio of gunmen to civilians anywhere in the world.

Having failed to address the root causes of this conflict the UN, and the so-called international community in general, should at least try to replace the logic of war on the ground with one of peace. This cannot be achieved without strong international support for Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's democratically elected government and its "Project for Peace" which enjoys the support of more than 70 per cent of all Lebanese.

The war has displaced at least 700,000 people, almost all of them Shi'ites, who have been forced to seek temporary shelter in predominantly Christian and Druze towns and villages. In some cases, the incoming wave of Shi'ite refugees has altered the demographic balance of villages and towns, causing sectarian tension. Very soon, the displaced families would have to think about finding schools for their children and, before long, winter would threaten over half a million people in largely mountainous areas.

Having encouraged and then supported the "Cedar Revolution", the US and its allies have a moral duty, as well as a political responsibility, to lead a major effort to re-house the displaced families and start reconstruction. Failing to do that could enable the most radical anti-democratic elements to shift the battle to the political front and undermine the Siniora government.

It may take months before effective control is established over southern Lebanon. But Lebanon's fragile sectarian structures might not withstand the pressure put on them much longer.

Once again, the "international community" has stepped in to prevent war from doing its job of deciding who won and who lost. It would be even worse if the same "international community" were to prevent peace from doing its job of helping those affected by the fighting to return to normal life before it is too late.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.