Hold Damascus Responsible

"There will be an international force [in Lebanon], because all the key players want it," a U.S. official asserted recently. He appears to be right, as even the Israeli government embraced the plan, announcing it "would agree to consider stationing a battle-tested force composed of soldiers from European Union member states."

The key players might "want it," but such a force will certainly fail, just as it did once before, in 1982-84.

That was when U.S., French, and Italian troops were deployed in Lebanon to buffer Israel from Lebanon’s anarchy and terrorism. The "Multinational Force" collapsed back then when Hizbullah attacked MNF soldiers, embassies, and other installations, prompting the MNF’s ignominious flight from Lebanon. The same pattern will no doubt recur. Back then, Americans and others did not regard Hizbullah as their enemy and this remains the case today, notwithstanding the war on terror; a recent Gallup poll finds 65 percent of Americans saying their government should not take sides in the current Israel-Hizbullah fighting.

Other, equally bad, ideas to end the anarchy in south Lebanon include:

  • Deploying the Lebanese Armed Forces, the Lebanese state’s official military: Hizbullah is within the government of Lebanon and would veto the LAF controlling the south. Also, Shi’ites sympathetic to Hizbullah make up half of the LAF. Finally, the LAF is too amateurish to confront Hizbullah.
  • Deploying Syrian forces: Lebanese and Israelis both reject a Syrian occupation of south Lebanon.
  • Deploying Israeli forces: After their experiences occupying Arab-majority lands in 1967 and 1982, Israelis have widely decided against a repetition.

Rather than travel down the road of predictable failure, something quite different needs to be tried. My suggestion? Shift attention from Lebanon to Syria and put Damascus on notice that it is responsible for Hizbullah violence. (Incidentally, this happens to be in keeping with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1680, adopted May 17, 2006, calling on Syria to undertake "measures against movements of arms into Lebanese territory").

Here’s why: Israeli leaders have long failed to prevent attacks emanating from Lebanon. They staunched cross-border terrorism with other neighbors by making it too painful for their central governments to permit such attacks to continue. But when they made demands of the Lebanese central government, they failed to get satisfaction. In Lebanon – unlike in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – no strong central government enjoys a monopoly of force. Lebanon’s state is permanently weak because its population directs its primary loyalties to one or other of the country’s eighteen religious-ethnic communities. As a result, militias, guerillas, and terrorists wield greater power than does the central government.

Israeli governments responded by trying a wide array of strategies over the past forty years. In 1968, Israeli jets pounded Beirut’s airport, to no effect. In the 1978 Litani operation, Israeli forces first entered Lebanon on a large scale, without success. In 1982, they seized a major part of the country, which proved untenable. Until 2000, they retained a security zone, but that ended in a sudden unilateral retreat. Evacuating every inch [centimeter] of Lebanese territory in 2000 likewise failed to prevent attacks.

At this point, the government of Bashar al-Assad should be told immediately to cease provisioning Hizbullah, and that future violence from south Lebanon will be met with what the Wall Street Journal calls an "offer that Syria cannot refuse" – meaning military reprisal. As David Bedein explains in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, "for every target hit by Syria’s proxy, Israel will single out Syrian targets for attack." Such targets could include the terrorist, military, and governmental infrastructures.

This approach will work because Hizbullah’s stature, strength, and skills depend on Syrian support, both direct and indirect. Given that Syrian territory is the only route by which Iranian aid reaches Hizbullah, focusing on Damascus has the major side-benefit of restricting Iranian influence in the Levant.

This plan has its drawbacks and complications – the recent Syrian-Iranian mutual defense treaty, or its giving Hizbullah the option to drag Syria into war – but it has a better chance of success, I believe, than any alternative.

Recalling how a similar approach worked in 1998, when the Turkish government successfully pressured Damascus to stop hosting a terrorist leader, the Israeli strategist Efraim Inbar rightly suggests "the time has come to speak Turkish to the Syrians."