August 5, 2010

Lebanon - let's not overreact

The recent border clash between soldiers of the Lebanese Army and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) highlights the fragile cease-fire in place there. It's pretty clear what happened. Several Israeli soldiers used a crane to trim a tree that was preventing observation into Hizballah-controlled southern Lebanon. The tree, although on the outside of the border fence, was still located in Israeli territory.

The fact that the tree was in Israeli terrirtory was confirmed by the United Nations. As a friend of mine remarked when he read the story, when the United Nations backs the Israeli version of events, you know it must be true.

In response to the tree-trimming, Lebanese soldiers fired on the Israelis; the Israelis returned fire. Three Lebanese soldiers and a journalist were killed on the Lebanese side, while one Israeli officer was killed and another wounded.

It is easy to understand how these seemingly minor events - trimming a tree - can lead to an international incident. The Lebanese saw an Israeli crane on what they perceived to be on Lebanese territory - a logical assumption. United Nations observers from
UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) warned the Israelis that the Lebanese claimed a violation of the border. The situation along that border is an incident waiting to erupt, and on this day, it did just that.

According to press reports from Lebanon, the Lebanese army officer in charge of the area in which this incident occurred is a Shi'a Muslim and an avowed supporter of Hizballah. Americans may find it curious that the press would report a military commander's religious affiliation and political leaning, but in Lebanon, it's normal. Sectarian divisions have caused problems for the country since its inception by the French in the aftermath of World War One.

Now we have some representatives in the U.S. Congress demanding that we re-assess our support of the Lebanese armed forces. Since the end of the war between the IDF and Hizballah in 2006, the United States has provided almost three quarters of a billion dollars worth of aid to the Lebanese. That aid includes military equipment, training and humanitarian assistance.

In FY2010, the United States allocated $100 million in assistance to the Lebanese armed forces, plus $109 million in economic (non-military) aid as well as $20 million to support Lebanese anti-drug efforts. The Obama Administration has proposed slightly more for FY2011.

While the United States is providing this money to the Lebanese, Iranian and Syrian backed Hizballah is growing stronger as both a political party and as a militia that many observers believe is more capable than the Lebanese Army. They are certainly more committed and have more combat experience.

Since the end of the war in 2006, despite UN Resolution 1701 that demands the disarmament of Hizballah and a pull back from the area south of the Litani River, Hizballah is deployed in force throughout southern Lebanon and now has more rockets and missiles than at any time since its founding by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1982.

If some of these representatives in Congress have their way and the assistance is not provided to the Lebanese armed forces and government, where will they turn for money, weapons and training? No doubt this will force them even more into the sphere of influence of Syria and Iran. The key beneficiary here will be Hizballah, already arguably the key power broker in the country.

Are we willing to cede that to them? If so, halt the assistance and write Lebanon off as what the Syrians already call it - al-muhafazih, "the province."