Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Dramatic changes in Lebanon

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 01 August 2006
Dateline: Beirut, Lebanon

In the eye of the storm raging across the Israel-Lebanon border is a battalion called 4 SIKH, comprised of about 800 Indian peacekeepers. With over a century and a half of enviable history 4 SIKH is credited with some of the most stirring exploits in the annals of warfare. Its defence of Saragarhi Fort in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province in 1897 is one: attacked by ten thousand Afridi and Orakzai tribesmen, a detachment of just 21 jawans of the battalion fought to the death rather than surrender. When the news was announced the British House of Commons rose to their feet and clapped for the heroes of Saragarhi. Historians have compared that last stand with the celebrated Battle of Thermopylae, in which a handful of Greeks held off the army of Xerxes of Persia. 

Today, the descendents of Saragarhi can only watch helplessly and pull from the rubble of Israeli air-strikes their dead comrades from the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Like most UN peacekeeping missions, UNIFIL is a deliberately toothless organisation; its mandate, prescribed by UN Security Council Resolution 425, is to observe and to report, but under no circumstances to fight. Since 1978, when Israeli forces first invaded Lebanon, UNIFIL has reported hundreds of Israeli violations of Lebanon's border. Israeli fighters and warships violate Lebanon's sovereignty almost daily, lashing out at the Hezbollah with air and artillery strikes whenever they find a target. The Hezbollah, self-styled defenders of Lebanon's sovereignty, hit back when they can, with rocket attacks and occasional abductions of Israeli soldiers which are more defiance than destruction. But now, as a condition to end the fighting, Israel wants the entire UNIFIL architecture replaced by a robust force that can rein in the Hezbollah. 

The Hezbollah's tactical success in killing six Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two more could well contain the seeds of strategic defeat. Israel, often an international pariah in times of crisis, has an astonishing coalition ranged on its side. The US, the UK, and several European countries are facilitating the military attrition of Hezbollah fighters. But most astonishingly, the major Sunni regimes—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan—have chosen to back Israel against an Arab opponent, reproaching the Hezbollah for the "adventurism" that triggered Israeli strikes. For the first time ever, a group of Sunni Arab regimes see a greater enemy than Israel: the steady rise of Shia power. 

While the tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran have long been apparent (and been further sharpened by the Arab-Persian divide), the Sunni statements reproaching the Hezbollah mark the transformation of the Shia-Sunni crack into a potential chasm. Sunni insecurity was already inflamed by the rise of Shia power in Iraq, ironically facilitated by the US. This anxiety reached fever pitch with the Hezbollah, another Shia group, staking a viable—and very visible—claim to becoming the legitimate knights of that holiest of Arab grails: the Palestine struggle. 

But while Sunni political regimes react thus to the Hezbollah's face-off with Israel, their people are breathless with excitement at the sight of an Arab militia battling an Israeli military invasion to a standstill. A very credible poll in Lebanon puts support for the war at 75 percent among all sections of society, including Maronite Christians. The Arab street is thrilled to see its weak and oft-beaten side rejuvenated by the arrival of a new player; that this superstar is a Shia militia in no way dims the exhilaration. Their own governments look weak and effete in contrast.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian governments are scrambling to come into line with this surge of mass opinion. Riyadh has dramatically changed tack, calling for an immediate cease-fire to prevent the Middle East from being engulfed in flames. But the most remarkable compliment to the Hezbollah's success has come from Al Qaeda. That most Sunni of organisations — jt has often declared that Shias in Iraq are unbelievers who should be killed at the first opportunity — has wasted no time in jumping onto the Hezbollah bandwagon. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda number two, has released a video supporting his "brothers in Gaza and Lebanon." 

The Hezbollah has defined the new heroic model for the Arab masses, regardless of the form of the eventual political settlement of Israel's war on it. Like in the early days of the 1973 war, the image of Israeli impregnability has taken a beating. Contemporary Israel's reluctance to take casualties and Tel Aviv's mistakes in prosecuting its war — notably the killings of unarmed UN observers and the bombing of a shelter in Qana — have left it no time to reach a favourable conclusion. 

It remains to be seen whether Hezbollah will accept any outside peacekeeping force on territory it considers its own; so far it has unambiguously signalled no. Nobody seems clear on who might be part of such a force. Potential contributors — the US, UK, France and Germany amongst them — have signalled their reluctance to send troops. The joke in Beirut is that these countries will volunteer to man the logistics base in Cyprus, but not to stand between the Hezbollah and Israel. 

Battalions like 4 SIKH that have the stomach to take casualties, do not have the mandate to do so. The search for suitable peacemakers could be a long one. 

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