November 14 marks three months since UN Resolution 1701 brought an end to the 34-day conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah militants. Just before the resolution was adopted last August, a number of European Union countries—including Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden—were quick to pledge troops to reinforce the international peacekeeping force known as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), ostensibly with the aim of transforming the cessation of hostilities into a durable ceasefire.
At the time, the deployment of European forces to Lebanon was hailed by Europhiles as an opportunity not only to demonstrate the viability of a common EU foreign policy. A revamped UNIFIL under a combined European command serving as the military arm of the EU would also distinguish Europe from America and its intervention in Iraq. While the United States starts wars, Europe ends them, their haughty logic says.
But what exactly have the Europeans accomplished since arriving in Lebanon? Not much, it appears. On the contrary, European leaders seem strangely indifferent to the mounting chaos within Lebanon.
Indeed, three months after the end of hostilities, the domestic political situation in Lebanon is as tense as ever and the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is teetering on the brink of collapse. Hezbollah is rearming and their fighters are retraining and establishing new military positions in preparation for resuming their war against Israel. Compounding these problems, numerous provisions of the UN resolution that secured the current cease-fire are not being enforced.
UN Resolution 1701 states, for example, that it is necessary to 'address urgently the causes that have given rise to the current crisis, including by the unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldiers' and that this was to occur simultaneously with the cessation of hostilities. However, not only have the two Israeli soldiers not been freed, but Hezbollah has not even been pressed to provide an indication as to whether they are still alive.
The resolution also calls for an arms embargo. It prohibits the 'sale or supply to any entity or individual in Lebanon of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned'. But Terje Roed-Larsen, the top UN envoy for Lebanon/Syria issues, on 30 October said that representatives of the Lebanese government 'have stated publicly and also in conversations with us that there have been arms coming across the border into Lebanon'. These concerns have been echoed by Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who said that 'Israel has undisputable evidence that Syria is currently transferring weapons and munitions into Lebanon'.
Moreover, UN Resolution 1559, which was adopted more than two years ago to boost the sovereignty of the Lebanese government, calls for the disbanding and disarmament of all militias in the country. And UN Resolution 1701 instructs peacekeepers to ensure that Lebanon's southern border with Israel is 'free of any armed personnel and weapons other than those of the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL'.
But European commanders admit that they are prohibited by their political masters from actively searching for Hezbollah weapons in Lebanon, and that they are unable to prevent weapons entering Lebanon from Syria. Indeed, Europeans are powerless in the face of Hezbollah. Case in point: In mid-October a patrol of Spanish peacekeepers was stopped by Hezbollah fighters. The Spanish called the Lebanese army for support, but they never showed up. The Spanish had to turn back.
Frustrated by his impotence vis-à-vis Hezbollah, the commander of UNFIL, French Major-General Alain Pellegrini, on 17 October lashed out at Israel instead, threatening to shoot down Israeli reconnaissance aircraft that are assessing the damage caused by Pellegrini's own failure to enforce UN Resolution 1701. Indeed, the Israeli information-gathering missions not only are monitoring Hezbollah as it rebuilds its military infrastructure right under the UN's nose, but they are also intended to ensure that the Israeli prisoners are not transferred to Syria or Iran.
Pellegrini's threats were echoed a few days later by Colonel Alexandre Lalanne-Berdouticq, a French military representative to UNIFIL, who warned Israel of 'the possibility that the French may have to open fire if the Israeli Air Force aircraft continue to fly over Lebanon'. Israel replied that it would 'continue to patrol the Lebanese skies as long as UN Resolution 1701 is not implemented'. It also warned UNIFIL that Israel would act 'unilaterally if the weapons deliveries to Hezbollah do not end'.
Bravado on the part of European military officers is a dangerous game: it increases the chances that European and Israeli forces will face off in a hostile incident. Such a risk was showcased on 24 October when Israeli jets fired flares over the German reconnaissance ship Alster in international waters off the Lebanese coast. The Alster is a spy vessel equipped with state-of-the-art wiretapping systems that can precisely locate Israeli jets heading for their over-flight missions in Lebanon. The vessel does not, however, officially belong to Germany's UNIFIL team. Indeed, Germany's failure to inform Israel about the deployment of the Alster is what led to the confusion. The incident brings to mind a deadly accident in June 1967 when the Israeli air force bombed the American spy-ship the USS Liberty. Thirty-four sailors were killed and 174 were wounded.
If anything, the Alster incident shows that Israeli security is the last thing on the minds of European governments. To be sure, few Israelis had any illusion that the new UNIFIL would act forcefully against Hezbollah fighters or make a serious effort to interdict arms shipments from Syria. Instead, the most that was hoped for was that UNIFIL would somehow bolster the Siniora government.
But in an unusual statement, the White House on 1 November said it was 'increasingly concerned by mounting evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments, Hezbollah and their Lebanese allies are preparing plans to topple Lebanon's democratically elected government'. Indeed, it appears that Hezbollah and its allies are plotting a major offensive against Siniora in order to prevent the Lebanese government from approving a UN-backed tribunal that is to try those accused of involvement in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Harriri in February 2005. Although Syria has denied involvement, Syrian intelligence officials, including close family members of President Bashar al-Assad, have been implicated.
Thus as the struggle for Lebanon's political future unfolds, it seems increasingly likely that in their haste to deploy forces to the Middle East, European politicians will get more than they bargained for. The French may call it nuance, but UNIFIL's mandate and their rules of engagement clearly were never as 'robust' as Europeans initially claimed.
The German government is now under fire from opposition politicians for luring them into agreeing to the mission in Lebanon under false pretenses. According to the Free Democrats, the UNIFIL mission is a 'farce'. Welcome to the strange new world of European common foreign policy in action.