Multilateral Intervention in the Middle East: An Uninspiring Legacy

Multilateral Intervention in the Middle East: An Uninspiring Legacy

Efforts to stabilize and pacify the Middle East conflict with UN and multinational peacekeeping forces have proven difficult—if not impossible. A look at the history of such efforts.

July 24, 2006 5:27 pm (EST)

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Negotiations over a possible multilateral military buffer force in southern Lebanon to separate Hezbollah fighters from the northern Israeli frontier take place against a backdrop of numerous failed international missions. Since the United Nations voted to grant independence to separate Jewish and Arab states on the territory of the expiring British Mandate of Palestine in 1947, a variety of international military forces, assembled by the UN itself and by ad hoc coalitions, have sought to intervene, patrol, quell, or otherwise pacify what came to be known simply as “the Middle East conflict.” Some of them briefly stabilized or changed the situation, but all ultimately failed in their primary aim, succumbing either to the violence of factions opposed to their presence, or to irrelevance as events and their lack of authority overtook their mandates.

What kind of force is being discussed?

Reversing decades of Israeli opposition to the subject, Israel’s current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he might be willing to consider proposals floated in recent days for a strong European-led peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon along with a contingent of soldiers from moderate Arab states. The United States, too, appears to be warming to the idea. But experts point out U.S. commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere and Washington’s poor standing in the Arab world likely mean no American troops would be involved. Though the composition of such a force is not clear, German, French, and Italian officials who have been meeting Israeli and Lebanese government leaders say a UN-sanctioned force that separated the warring parties would be a minimum requirement. The force might also seek to help Lebanon’s fragile national army extend its writ in the region. A more aggressive mandate would also include enforcement of UN resolution 1559, calling for Hezbollah’s disarmament. However, some experts believe it is too soon to start talking about the composition of a peacekeeping force. Danielle Pletka, a Middle East expert and vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, says Olmert’s words need to be carefully understood. “He was very careful in his wording [that he was] ‘willing to consider’ such a force,” she says. “I think the Israelis have been very clear about the markers they’re laying down. They want any force that goes in to disarm Hezbollah, [and] they want no UN involvement, unless it’s just the imprimatur the UN provides.”

What are the chances of this force being successful?

Experts on the Middle East have no simple answer for this question. Hillel Halkin, a Jerusalem Post analyst, mixes caution with a willingness to try something new. “International troops haven’t always worked out well for us—UNIFIL [the UN observer force already based in southern Lebanon] is a good example—but they’ve been fine in other places, such as the multinational contingent in Sinai,” he writes. “For Israel to rule out such a temporary solution on a knee-jerk basis could just end up creating a vacuum that Hezbollah could slowly creep back into.” Lee Feinstein, CFR senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy and international law and a former senior State and Defense official during the Clinton administrations, says such a force could be useful in the short term. “The best use of a possible peacekeeping deployment is in its aid to diplomacy now; that is, if the prospect of some kind of significant deployment can get the two sides to stop fighting, then you’ve achieved something in the short run and hopefully created space for something better,” he says. “But, militarily, this force is not going to be able to be the main bulwark against Hezbollah attacks into Israel. Militarily, a force like this inserted in southern Lebanon today is doomed to failure.” AEI’s Pletka is even more skeptical. “They are totally worthless, in my view,” she says. “The problem is this part of Lebanon doesn’t demand a passive buffer, if it did, UNIFIL would be okay. This part ofLebanondemands a peacemaker. Do we really see the French military coming in and shooting it up with Hezbollah?”

Are UN peacekeeping or monitoring forces currently in the region?

Yes. Three of the half dozen missions authorized since 1948 remain active. The oldest of these forces—the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO)—dates to the 1948 war which followed Israel’s independence. Over 150 troops from two dozen nations take part, ostensibly policing the “truce” between the Palestinians and Israel which ended the 1948 war, as well as the lines of ceasefire which ended the 1967 war. The unit is based in Jerusalem. As other wars erupted, other UN organizations cropped up to observe the eventual ceasefire agreements. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Forces (UNDOF), established in 1974 and still fielding over 1,000 troops, is tasked with watching the Golan Heights border between Syria and Israel. It is based on the Syrian side of the still-disputed Golan Heights region.

In 1978, the largest of the UN forces to be established in the region arrived in southernLebanon. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) includes nearly 2,000 soldiers, and over the years nearly 300 UNIFIL troops have died there. UNIFIL’s mandate was to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces, which had entered Lebanon to confront Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) forces based there at the time; to “restore international peace and order;” and to help the Lebanese government reestablish its control of the area. With Lebanon engaged in a furious civil war at the time, however, UNIFIL’s mandate proved illusory and, in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in force and UNIFIL’s forces ever since have been relegated to merely reporting on what is happening around them, and to humanitarian missions in their locales.

Which other forces currently operate in the region?

Until 2005, Syria’s large deployment in Lebanon, couched as a stabilization force which dated to the start of Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, had been the major outside military formation in the volatile Israeli-Lebanon-Palestinian area. That force, some 30,000 strong at its height and deployed largely in southern Lebanon and along the country’s mountainous border with Syria, left at Lebanon’s demand after evidence emerged of Syrian intelligence complicity in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

Only one other sanctioned international force operates in the region: the 1,500-strong American-led Multinational Force and Observers, based in Egypt’s Sinai Desert. Established in 1978 as part of the Camp David peace talks, the MFO is designed to prevent any buildup of forces in the Sinai which could precipitate a new Egyptian-Israeli conflict. At the moment, a force of 700 U.S. soldiers is bolstered by troops from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Fiji, France, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, and Uruguay. The force is funded by Egypt and Israel, largely out of generous annual U.S. aid dispersals guaranteed by the Camp David Accords. Germany and Japan make smaller financial contributions. 

What is the history of multinational peacekeeping interventions in Lebanon?

In addition to the UNIFIL and Syrian interventions described above, both of the other peacekeeping missions involved large U.S. contingents: one, by Lebanon’s request, in 1958; the other, in 1983, to bolster a new Lebanese government and remove the PLO to exile in Tunisia.  

  • “Operation Blue Bat”: The 1958 U.S. intervention represented the first American military incursion into the region since World War II. That year, Lebanon’s President Camille Chamoun, a Christian, faced growing unrest and calls from some communist and pan-Arab factions in the country to join the short-lived United Arab Republic that united Egypt and Syria. Chamoun requested the intervention of U.S. troops to maintain Lebanese independence. Operation Blue Bat, authorized by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, dispatched some 14,000 troops to Lebanon, where they remained for six months largely unopposed until a new Lebanese government took office.
  • Evacuating the PLO:  The second U.S. troop deployment in Lebanon did not go so smoothly. In 1982, southern Lebanon served as the primary base for Yasir Arafat’s PLO, as well as the home territory of several Lebanese Muslim and Druze militias, all enmeshed in a civil war. Seeking to root out its enemy, Israel intervened in the war on the side of the Lebanese Christians, driving opposing forces into Beirut and unleashing punishing barrages and air raids against the city. A year of fighting, with atrocities on all sides, led to a ceasefire with a newly installed Christian Lebanese government and an Israeli withdrawal agreement.

The withdrawal agreement included evacuation of the PLO into exile in Tunisia, to be handled by a large U.S., French, and Italian multinational force of peacekeepers which arrived in early 1983. In October 1983, however, Hezbollah—a growing militia with strong support among Lebanese Shiites which had previously destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut with a car bomb—struck again, killing 241 U.S. Marines and fifty-six French paratroopers in separate attacks on their barracks. Retaliatory air raids on Lebanese and Syrian targets followed, but by February 1982, U.S. forces had withdrawn, followed by the French and Italians that April. Lebanon, meanwhile, descended further into civil war and Israel announced it would retain a “security buffer” some twenty miles wide in southern Lebanon, a zone it held against Hezbollah resistance until a unilateral withdrawal in 2000. Lebanese central government authority never extended to the Israeli border.

What explains the difficulty of international peacekeeping in the region?

French and British colonial rule, which last well beyond World War II, are vital to understanding the region’s resentment of outside occupying forces. Syria and Lebanon assumed full independence from the French in 1946, but felt French influence for much longer. Further away, France held on in Algeria through a bloody civil war before finally granting it independence in 1961.

Britain, too, left the region reluctantly, renouncing its difficult mandate in Palestine and Jordan (Trans-Jordan) in 1948, yet maintaining a strong influence in Jordan, Iran and Iraq through commercial and military interests well into the 1950s. In Egypt, nominally independent for decades, British control only really ended with a coup deposing the pro-British King Farouk in 1953. Even then, Britain orchestrated an attack by British, French, and Israeli troops in 1956 to try to prevent President Gamel Abdel Nasser from nationalizing the Suez Canal. The United Nations deployed a force after the 1956 Suez war to monitor the withdrawal of foreign forces. The UN force itself withdrew in 1957.

For Israel, the concept of international peacekeepers historically has been anathema. “The real shift in the current situation is that Israel is prepared and interested in the deployment of a force in southern Lebanon,” says CFR’s Feinstein. “That is a major shift from not only skepticism but the outright hostility to such forces it has shown in the past.” That hostility, Israelis point out, is rooted both in a history of UN resolutions viewed as biased against Israel, as well as a powerful national sense of self-reliance rooted in the hostility of the region as well as a history of persecution that predates the nation’s founding. “Internationalization” or “UN stewardship” also has been proposed over the years by such varied actors as the Vatican, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations General Assembly as a solution to the dispute over Jerusalem. Israel flatly rejects the idea, and has, in general, rejected the UN’s contention that it represents an "honest broker" ever since the General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 in 1975 equating Zionism, Israel’s founding ideology, with racism.

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