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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Come Back, Bashar . . .

July 25, 2006

Last year, the U.S. followed France in applying maximum pressure to force Syria to withdraw its troops and intelligence units from Lebanon. As part of that effort, the French, the Americans and the British persuaded China and Russia to accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which ordered Syria to leave Lebanon and Hezbollah to disarm.

The theory was that, once liberated from Syrian oppression, the Lebanese would unite and their parties -- Sunni, Christian, Druze and moderate Shiite -- would compete or even quarrel, but within a national framework. That, in turn, would allow the Lebanese armed forces to control the totality of the national territory. Hezbollah, for its part, would enter the political process by disarming and disbanding its armed forces.

Instead, many Lebanese political leaders put other priorities ahead of national unity. President Emile Lahoud, a Christian who has much influence over the armed forces, chose to remain an obedient servant of President Bashar Assad of Syria and his regime. Former President Michel Aoun, a Maronite and previously the hero of many Christians for his resistance to Syrian domination, also chose to ally himself with the Syrians and with Hezbollah, even supporting its refusal to disarm. Other politicians simply preferred to maneuver for personal advantage, instead of forming coalitions to pursue broader interests.

The result was the worst possible outcome. Syria was pushed out of Lebanon and, therefore, no longer has any responsibility over the country. But it continues to have much power in Lebanon, through Mr. Lahoud, among others, and of course through Hezbollah, which Syria supplies with its own weapons and those sent from Iran. Meanwhile, because the Lebanese state does not control its own territory, no responsible party is in control of Lebanon.
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There is talk now of sending a multinational force to southern Lebanon. If so, it would have to be very different from the existing U.N. force (Unifil), whose 1,990 troops under a French general do nothing except take shelter from the fighting and collect generous U.N. salaries. At no point did Unifil even try to prevent Hezbollah from launching attacks, let alone take any action to implement Resolution 1559 by disarming them.

In the past, the Israelis were able to contain Hezbollah through Syria by announcing, from time to time, that if Hezbollah crossed specific "red lines" -- notably by launching rockets into Israel -- they would attack Syrian military installations. The regime in Damascus paid attention and Hezbollah followed the rules, confining its military action to mostly symbolic attacks within the very small territory of the "Shebaa farms" (which Hezbollah claims belongs to Lebanon, contrary to the U.N.'s yard-by-yard demarcation, and all the maps). No such threat could work against a Lebanese government which could not control Hezbollah.

Lebanon could still be bombed -- as is now the case -- but mostly to achieve logistic rather than political aims, specifically to close airports, ports and roads from Syria to prevent the resupply of Hezbollah. In addition, there were specifically Hezbollah targets: various headquarters, the residence of its leader Hassan Nasrallah, and hundreds of weapon depots.

This left only two options to the Israelis if Hezbollah did start a conflict. The first is the one they chose -- the systematic attack of known or suspected Hezbollah storage sites for rockets and missiles in basements, garages, caves, etc., by artillery fire, bombardment, commando raids and small-scale armored incursions. Because the inventory was huge (more than 12,000 rockets and 100 guided missiles) and very dispersed, its cumulative destruction would be a slow process, lasting weeks rather than days.

The second is an invasion of Lebanon as in 1982, in the hope of clashes with Hezbollah to reduce its numbers in direct combat, but mainly to find and destroy weapons-storage sites. That would require the Israelis to stay in Lebanon until Hezbollah were disarmed and disbanded, i.e., indefinitely.

While the Israelis pursue their options, outside powers also have two options. The military option would be to send a powerful multinational force well supplied with ammunition to disarm Hezbollah by force if necessary -- and with orders to be ready for guerilla fighting. At the G-8 meeting, for example, Vladimir Putin offered to send troops. But there are almost no other suitable forces. The Americans and British are insufficiently neutral; and while there are always countries willing to supply units to the U.N. if only for the financial rewards, they are invariably forbidden to fight in earnest, and most could not fight anyway. Another and larger Unifil, which would do nothing effective against Hezbollah while freezing the Israeli army in its tracks, would be much worse than useless.

Then there is the horrible-to-contemplate but irresistibly seductive diplomatic option: to invite the Syrians to disarm Hezbollah and persuade it to follow the political path. Hezbollah already has two ministers in the Lebanese cabinet and might claim more.

Naturally that would imply the recognition of Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon, and of course the thoroughly unworthy Bashar Assad would have to be treated as a leader of regional importance. Only that could tempt Mr. Assad to abandon his alliance with Iran -- along with the important rewards that would come his way more or less spontaneously. These rewards would include gifts from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, all three of which now fear Iran as the most dangerous threat they face; they would also include the approval -- or at least the diminished hostility -- of Syria's Sunni majority, which vehemently dislikes the alliance with Shiite Iran, especially now that the Iranians are supporting Iraq's Shiites in their bloody fight with the Sunnis.

For France, the U.S. and the U.K., it would, of course, be tremendously embarrassing to recognize that they made a gigantic error in expelling Syria without having put anything its place, thus leaving a vacuum of power in Lebanon that Hezbollah has exploited. (A new principle of statecraft thus emerges: It is a mistake to follow the French even when they are right.) But unlike the military option, which is simply impossible, the diplomatic option is merely humiliating. Having massacred their own Islamists very efficiently, the Syrians can do the job again, if sufficiently rewarded.

Mr. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is author of "Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace"


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