UNIFIL, Hezbollah Prepare For Possible Syria Strike

Having cooperated for decades in southern Lebanon, both UNIFIL forces and Hezbollah are preparing for the repercussions of US-led military action in Syria.

al-monitor Spanish peacekeepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) patrol on their armored vehicle in Khiam village, southern Lebanon, July 24, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

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united states, unifil, syria, military, lebanon, hezbollah

Sep 10, 2013

There are no guarantees that the UNIFIL soldiers in Lebanon — in charge of protecting the Blue Line along the Lebanese-Israeli border that was set according to UN Resolution 1701 — are safe from the repercussions of a potential US military strike on Syria, if such an operation were to expand. It should be noted in this regard that one of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon's (UNIFIL) main forces is made up of French soldiers, who number over 800. Moreover, France is considered the most ardent supporter of US President Barack Obama’s military strike against the Syrian regime, while Hezbollah is the most zealous group in defending the persistence of this regime. The fact that UNIFIL’s region of operation is located in the stronghold of the popular base and the invisible military base of Hezbollah, means that France — which has a weighty presence in UNIFIL — and Hezbollah are united on one land. Consequently, questions about the possibility of smooth coexistence between them in south Lebanon are raised, in the event of the expansion of a US military strike.

On that note, there are concerns that Hezbollah would become a part of the military war if the scale of the US strike expands to topple the Syrian regime, instead of just punishing it with a limited strike. In this case, UNIFIL soldiers will become hostages of a front that could flare up at anytime between Hezbollah and Israel. It is not unlikely that Hezbollah would target French soldiers in UNIFIL, should the French government involve itself in an open war alongside the United States against the Syrian regime. There are bets in the West that Lebanon will stay impartial in the Gulf-French-US war on Syria. The odds of this happening are high if Iran and Hezbollah discover that the US strike is partial, and does not aim at toppling the regime. However, if the opposite is proven true, Hezbollah will most probably ignite things on the Lebanese front with Israel in the framework of a pressure tactic on the latter, so that it interferes and pushes Washington to stop the attack aimed at overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad.

There are scary scenarios being discussed in the security and political backstage in Beirut, including a war of missile strikes between Israeli and Lebanese cities — one that brings back to mind the war of cities between Iran and Iraq during the first Gulf War. Beyond that, sources close to Hezbollah have clarified to Al-Monitor that the party has big military surprises in store for this incident, dubbed by party leaders as “the big war.” They comprise launching operations to occupy settlements in the Galilee region close to the Lebanese border and taking its citizens hostage, not to mention dealing special security blows to the Israeli regions and using new qualitative weapons that Hezbollah has never used yet.

All evidence in Lebanon indicates that the party is preparing for a huge regional battle, which will be triggered by the US military strike. Were the latter to expand, it would ignite the situation in Syria’s neighboring countries. A source close to Hezbollah, speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, said that the party will be able to estimate the extent of the operation’s goals during the first hours of a US strike. If the Americans and their allies attack limited and symbolic targets, this would mean that the war might not expand. However, if the first US strike hits strategic targets and is accompanied by military action by the Syrian opposition forces, this will be considered decisive evidence that Washington is embarking on a war to topple the Assad regime, thus “pushing the resistant axis to ignite on all fronts.”

It seems that Lebanese security sources do not dismiss the prospects of such developments annihilating all components of UN Resolution 1701, thus making UNIFIL, and especially French soldiers, targets for painful blows. In this context, these sources recall Hezbollah’s bombing of the US and French embassies in Beirut in 1983, which claimed the lives of hundreds of employees and marines. As a result, the US soldiers deployed by the 6th Fleet on the Lebanese coast, in the wake of the 1982 war, withdrew.

History might repeat itself with the French UNIFIL forces in south Lebanon, if the reach of the US strike expands to long-term goals in the Levant.

It should be noted that, during the past few years, UNIFIL forces in south Lebanon have been the target of bombing ambushes that Salafist groups claimed responsibility for. It is notable that, during that period, no direct or indirect military clashes were recorded between UNIFIL and Hezbollah. The worst that happened was Hezbollah’s encouragement for its local supporters to obstruct the path of UNIFIL patrols when they started roaming their villages. Hezbollah was trying to pass the message that it refuses those patrols trespass main roads set by UN Resolution 1701 as places where the party’s soldiers can move. In general, the party has succeeded in setting the groundwork for smooth interaction with UNIFIL, which allows it to prove its presence in its regions of operation, without affecting its fulfillment of its military and security plans in the villages supporting it.

Within the past few months, the balance of coexistence between the party and UNIFIL was confronted with two major unprecedented political challenges. The first was the EU’s decision to add Hezbollah’s military wing to the list of terrorist organizations and the entailed expectations of affecting the smooth stay of the UNIFIL — which is European at its core — in Hezbollah’s popular stronghold in southern Lebanon. Yet, the party’s behavior did not show any sign of wanting to retaliate against the EU decision by targeting UNIFIL in its predominant areas. The only measure taken by the party was cutting its unofficial intelligence-based ties aiming at monitoring Salafist terrorist activity in the region. These ties existed between its security apparatus and the UNIFIL command in Naqoura, as well as with European countries’ embassies in Beirut, the French Embassy in particular.

However, the new challenge is that one may not predict how the repercussions of the expected war on Syria will affect the situation of UNIFIL in the south. The most prevalent guess is that the targets sought by the Western attack on Syria constitute the benchmark according to which one may measure the level of risk threatening the UNIFIL. The larger the extent of the targets, the more dangerous the situation becomes for the UNIFIL.

On the other hand, days ago, the UNIFIL command evacuated some of the families of its troops from Lebanon. This was deemed a preliminary procedure indicating UNIFIL’s concerns of violent incidents against peacekeepers, which may be produced as a result of the developments of the Syrian crisis. According to information obtained by Al-Monitor, the UNIFIL command had prepared, about two years ago, emergency sea evacuation plans for all of its troops from the forces’ areas of operation under UN Resolution 1701, in the event of developments dramatically threatening their security.

At times, Al-Monitor withholds the bylines of our correspondents to protect authors, sources or both. Different authors may have written the individual stories identified on this page.

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