By Jahangir Arasli
On July 25 the French patrol vehicle in the UN force’s convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in the southern Lebanese town of Saida (Sidon). With five soldiers wounded and no one killed this minor event did not attract much attention, being overshadowed by other news from the region gripped by violence. Perhaps, it should have gained more attention. The tactical details surrounding the attack suggest the target was not random but selected. This particular incident may reflect the existence of the scheme devised by the Syrian regime and aimed at triggering a major conflict in South Lebanon by creating the permissive environment for the military confrontation between Israel and the Hizbullah movement. The design of such an end state rests on the end of the UN presence in the area. The ultimate interest is to reduce internal and external pressures on the regime caused by the ongoing popular uprising in Syria.
UNIFIL: Between Hammer and Anvil
To better understand the recent developments let us look a few years back. At the immediate aftermath of the Second Lebanese war in August 2006 the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was issued with a renewed Security Council mandate to create the buffer zone between the belligerents. Though both sides were often expressing disappointment of UNIFIL and complaining on its deficiencies and partiality, the force indeed has contributed into preventing a major war in the South in the past five years. However, UNIFIL itself was targeted less than a year after the start of the mission. On June 24, 2007 a Spanish armored personnel carrier was hit by a booby-trapped car and five servicemen were killed. It was the deadliest incident involving the UN force so far and requires to be placed into a context.
On May 2007 a major conflict erupted in the North between the government of Lebanon (GOL) and the militant organization Fatah al Islam (FAI), consisted mostly of Sunni radicals with a Palestinian background. The Lebanese army and security forces vested the FAI strongholds in the refugee camp Nahr al Bared near Tripoli. The attack on UNIFIL occurred amid the protracted fighting in the North. With no attribution source of the attack identified some observers and media speculated about Hizbullah, given the high visibility of the movement and its control over the South were the incident took place. However, that assumption appears not logical. Hizbullah, recovering after the bloody 2006 war, was least interested in violating the emerged status-quo in the South and considered the UNIFIL deployment as a warranty against any military action whether Israel decides to finish the job. Vice versa, the FAI would have liked the emergence of the major crisis in the South to redirect the government’s attention and pressure from the besieged camp. Thus, it appears likely to have been a premeditated attack aimed at the removal of the UNIFIL from Lebanon and the target was carefully selected. Spain was suffering a political fatigue from post-9/11 overseas operations. The slaughter of the Spanish military intelligence officers in Iraq in 2003 and the deaths of 62 servicemen returning back home from Afghanistan in an air disaster became high-visibility events shaping negative public perceptions. Not surprisingly, the major terrorist attack in Madrid followed on March 2004 forced the Spanish government to drop out from the Iraqi coalition. That fact was interpreted as a major victory in the jihadist world and ignited a discourse on the inherent weakness of the democratically elected Western governments depending on the public opinion. So, the potential logic behind the suggested FAI plot was not too irrational – hit the weakest link, reap a body count, cause public outcry, force the Spaniards out of the UNIFIL, and the UN effort starts to crumble. Though the plot did not work in 2007 for many reasons, the card remained intact at the disposal of potential spoilers. These days, with the rapid development of the turmoil in the region, it attains a more dangerous dimension.
Syria and Lebanon: An Emerging Knot
For the further assessment there is a need to look at the broader scenery now. The collapse of the previous GOL in January 2011 and the formation of the new one shifted the balance of power. Hizbullah was a primary beneficiary of that shift and currently is busy consolidating gains and redistributing resources. With the control stake in the GOL Hizbollah became more assertive, less susceptible to Tehran’s advising and is not interested in a confrontation with Israel on the southern border. Moreover, Hizbullah closely cooperates with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and UNIFIL to ensure stability in the South and prevent any surprises. Equally, there are no other major players in Lebanon seeking to flare up tensions. But Syria may have a different agenda.
Assad’s regime would obviously be happy extracting the population from the ongoing uprising and lift the mounting international pressure by diverting it outward. Lebanon and the Palestinian issue provide a rich variety of scenarios. There are some indicators of internal Syrian dissent spreading to Lebanon with the Sunni–Alawite clashes that flared up in the city of Tripoli last May. Yet, this violent sectarian encounter should not screen the paradoxical reality: A certain part of the Sunni jihadist outfits, despite their anti-regime rhetoric, are a creation of the Syrian secret services. After the hardship pullout in 2005 the proxy “stay-behind clusters” remained a tool of Damascus’s influence in the country. The assets are the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party of Lebanon (SSNP), the predominantly Palestinian group Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Levant), and the faction of Col. Munir Maqdah. Perhaps, some vestiges of the FAI should be also counted. All of the mentioned are obscure, fragmented, and have a long history of violence. The Assad regime may pull those proxy strings to foment conflict involving Lebanon and Israel.
Scenario: The Blue Helmets Targeted
To utilize such a scenario two conditions are required. The first is a provocation triggering a Israeli military response to Hizbullah. How it may look like was revealed by the events of August 3, 2010 when an unidentified sniper shot the Israeli battalion commander across the border provoking retaliation against the LAF which lost three soldiers in the clash (a Lebanese journalist was killed as well). The second condition is the permissive environment that will enable an Israeli operation at the border. Such an environment would produce a security vacuum if the UN peacekeepers are withdrawn. The latter consideration makes the UNIFIL posture potentially vulnerable as was confirmed by the recent events leaving a strong reminiscent of 2007 events. An attack against the UNIFIL patrol in Saida on May 27 left 6 Italians wounded and prompted Rome to pull out 700 servicemen from the mission. The mentioned attack against the French on July 25 also fits the plot. The tactical details of both incidents and the technical parameters of the IEDs demonstrate the peacekeepers were not targets of opportunity but rather premeditated. The operational hub of the Jund al-Sham – Ain al-Hilwe refugee camp – is just next door to Saida. An additional factor are the restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) which make UNIFIL personnel if not sitting ducks but at least exposed. That was particularly proved by the bizarre incident in July 2010 when the entire French unit was disarmed by local civilians.
The most attractive target for the potential spoiler attacks in the UNIFIL order of battle are the Belgian, Danish, French, Irish, Portuguese and Spanish contingents. Spain is the most attractive with the general elections announced for the next November; almost a possible direct replay of March 2004. Germans also are vulnerable: Though they participate in the maritime part of the operation only, the possibility of a seaborne terrorist attack should not be disregarded. Coupled with the widening economic crisis, financial strain, growing Afghan fatigue and the Libyan war, the bodybags from Lebanon would likely cause public uproar and further contribute to an EU political paralysis. The European pullout may lead to a collapse of the entire UNIFIL mission. If that happened, the second stage of the complex scheme – the provocation triggering Israeli action landing on the Hizbullah – is possibly due to occur the day after.
The mentioned scheme may work based on media interpretations of terrorist attacks against the UNIFIL. Some sources put the blame on Hizbullah by saying it used to send warnings to the UN not to expand the force’s mandate that would authorize search of the arms caches in the villages controlled by the movement. Such a mindset reflects the platitude which links all what happens in South Lebanon to Hizbullah. While all versions still deserve attention, it seems hardly that Hizbullah would like to self-inflict such an injury and violate the current favorable balance. Yet, the Damascus regime, feeling increasingly cornered and threatened, may try to up the ante. And it has a tool for doing just that.
Certainly, the Syrian regime also has options other than mentioned at hand vis-à-vis its proxies. One is the organization of mass civilian protests at the Israeli border in the hope of shootings and the creation of casualties. The first rehearsal took place on the al-Naqba and the Six Day war anniversaries respectively on May 15 and June 5 when the pro-Syrian Palestinian factions tried to mastermind marches to the line of control. Still, the eviction of the UNIFIL coupled with the provocative behavior offer the spoilers and their handlers more opportunities since it may encourage, circumstances permitted, a wide-scale Israeli invasion. The latter would be a gift for the Assad regime. It should be noted, however, that the pro-Syrian Palestinian factions failed to organize the march to the borders the second time after Hizbullah and the Lebanese Army opposed it and prevented the Palestinians from doing it. Clearly, this signals another sign of differences between Hizbullah and Syria.
With the September crisis in the Middle East precipitating the expected unilateral proclamation of the Palestinian state is looming, the Syrian regime believes it needs to buy time – just a couple of months – to calm down the protest and survive. One of the promising strategies, from the regime’s perspective, is triggering the external crisis to redirect internal pressure and external attention. Its practical implementation may include targeting the European political will by exploitation the sensitivities towards lives loss. If the peace guardians will be caught off-guard in Lebanon and suffer the fatalities, the Europeans would likely opt for an exit. The eventual termination of the UNIFIL mission would open Damascus more room for maneuver, and in particular to display the Hizbuillah as a perpetrator with a whole set of potential repercussions. To achieve a desired end it has proxy tools providing a lot of opportunities for false flag attacks. The approaching expiration date of the UNIFIL yearly mandate on August 31 which requires another voting procedure in the UN Security Council places additional risk. The Middle East now is a theater of unthinkable scenarios. In the coming weeks South Lebanon and the UNIFIL are to be watched closely.
Jahangir Arasli, Non-Resident Scholar, INEGMA