Financial Crisis Forces France to Consider UNIFIL Withdrawal

Article Summary
Confronted with a severe strain on its finances, the French Government is considering a withdrawal from the UN peacekeeping force in Southern Lebanon. Although these threats are now more plausible than ever, a French withdrawal would signal the end of the UNIFIL mission. This would compromise Israeli interests as well as breaking with France’s historical ties to Lebanon, writes Nabil Haitham.

Will the repercussions of the economic and financial crisis gripping the world - and Europe in particular - affect the presence, numbers, role and efficacy of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon [UNIFIL] on the Lebanese Southern border?

One political source considers this a very serious possibility, especially since the economic and financial earthquake is having an impact on almost all countries on the European continent. [In fact, some say that Europe] might soon become a helpless “old continent.”  The [financial] earthquake has mainly hit the triangle of France, Italy and Spain - [some of] the most prominent European states and the backbone of the UNIFIL forces operating in Southern Lebanon. Thus, it would be very normal - asserts the political figure - for these countries, and others in Europe located on the fault line of the earthquake, to take preemptive measures to mitigate the impact of the crisis and the burden on their economies. Some of the countries participating in UNIFIL may move towards withdrawing or reducing the size of their forces in Southern Lebanon.

The political source reveals that some of the Lebanese figures who visited Paris recently have returned [to Lebanon] under the impression that “serious discussions are underway on the feasibility of keeping French troops outside of France, whether in Lebanon or elsewhere, as a result of the crisis that has begun to affect the French economy. [The crisis] is prompting the French authorities to consider all means of minimizing its impact.” Indeed, one senior Lebanese official received a letter stating that: France is considering the withdrawal of “quelques centaines de soldats” - that is, a few hundred soldiers.

This coincides with revelations disclosed by French [officials] to Lebanese politicians in Beirut. They said that France is headed toward parliamentary and presidential elections [in 2012], and that in the context of a deteriorating economic crisis the general consensus in France - regardless of who wins the election - is [for the need] to “withdraw the French [UNIFIL] troops from Lebanon.” When the French [official] who said so was told “this is a significant and dangerous decision,” he replied: “We understand, but the financial crisis is [also] very serious.”

A veteran diplomat within the Lebanese Foreign [Ministry] mentioned that movements in France demanding the withdrawal of [French] troops from Lebanon are nothing new. In the past, many voices have called on French authorities to withdraw the troops from Lebanon. Recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to pull out French soldiers from UNIFIL, due to the [road side] bomb targeting a French UNIFIL contingent. In the opinion of the diplomat, such a threat is today more serious than ever before. It is being raised under the pretense of security and concern over the safety of French soldiers. But its true essence is economic, and it is largely linked to the financial crisis that France and other European countries are undergoing.

However, the diplomat notes that even if France wants to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, it may not be able to for several reasons:

First, a withdrawal of French troops would disable UNIFIL and deal a fatal blow to UN Resolution 1701 and its desired results. France is the backbone of UNIFIL forces. A withdrawal of French forces would neutralize UNIFIL and prevent it from continuing its prescribed role mandated by Resolution 1701. Even a reduction in the number of [French] troops would turn UNIFIL into a merely symbolic force. Its presence or non-presence would be equivalent.

Second, France is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Simply through considering a withdrawal of its troops, France would set off a domino effect. Other European countries such as Italy and Spain would definitely follow suit. [Italy and Spain] may even withdraw [their troops before France] in order to ease the [financial] burdens they face - the economic crises in these countries far exceed that in France.

Third, France’s withdrawal from UNIFIL would imply a withdrawal from its role in Lebanon, and an end to its historical relationship with this country. It would in essence be resigning from the role of “maternal guardian” it has long represented to a large segment of the Lebanese people.

Fourth, the UNIFIL forces in the South are a stabilizing factor near the border with occupied Palestine. While this stability represents an indirect demand of [the Lebanese government] and the resistance [Hezbollah], it has also been called for by Israel and its Western allies - the Americans and Europeans, including France. [A potential] withdrawal [of UNIFIL troops] would affect Israel as much as it would Lebanon. Israel's interests will take precedence over any other economic or security considerations, [even those] relating to the protection of French soldiers. If France insists on withdrawing [its troops from UNIFIL], the United States and Israel will be the first [countries] to try and dissuade it from this decision. As history has proven, the Europeans cannot make such a decision with consulting the Americans. Therefore, they cannot “deal a blow” to a large international project linked to Resolution 1701, or to Israeli interest, based on [mere] financial considerations.

Fifth, there is only one case where a state’s withdrawal from UNIFIL be seen as a routine procedure [with no] repercussions. Prime Minister Najib Mikati summed it up when he said a few days ago that the mission of the international forces operating in Southern [Lebanon] would be over once the Lebanese army takes over the responsibility of maintaining security in that part of the country. For the [Lebanese] army to take over power, it would need to be empowered and armed - something the Americans have so far not allowed.

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