Stronger Profile for French Peacekeepers? ; Expected to Lead the International Force in Lebanon, France Is Pushing for Muscular Rules of Engagement
Susan Sachs Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
As foreign ministers met in Beirut on Wednesday to discuss the shape of a UN peacekeeping force, France was poised to take its biggest role in decades on the Middle East stage as the force's lead army in Lebanon.
French troops have long been involved in missions in Africa, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, and they participate in the weak UN observer force, now led by a French Army general, which has been based in southern Lebanon since 1978.
But their anticipated deployment, meant to support the cease- fire and enforce an arms embargo in southern Lebanon, marks a shift in France's relations with the Arab world, and with the US, its old rival for influence in the region.
If France has learned any lessons for Lebanon from its experiences as a peacekeeper elsewhere, it is to insist on muscular rules of engagement that allow its soldiers to take the offensive, and fire their weapons, if necessary, says Guillaume Parmentier, a former French Defense Ministry official who is with the French Institute of Foreign Relations in Paris. France will also need a "spoken or unspoken" commitment from Hizbullah to cooperate with UN troops.
"What we want to avoid is what we met when we were in Bosnia before the Dayton agreement, where you have to make peace ... without the proper means," he says. "You can't have a situation where you can only reply when attacked, but can't intervene when things are going on in front of your eyes," he says. "That spells complete disaster, like what happened at Srebrenica."
The UN resolution to end the fighting between Israel and Hizbullah provides for the multinational force to help the Lebanese Army establish control in south Lebanon as Israeli and Hizbullah forces withdraw. It includes an arms embargo, a mission that could mean international peacekeepers are deployed along the Syrian- Lebanese border to stop weapons shipments to Hizbullah from Syria.
While details and rules of engagement are still being worked out at the UN, France has been asked to quickly send 3,500 soldiers to Lebanon, where a jittery cease-fire took effect on Monday. At full strength, the UN force is envisioned at 15,000.
So far, Italy and Turkey have indicated that they are willing to contribute troops. Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, in Beirut, did not specify the number of troops France would send, and stated that while France was ready to play an important role in the force, it was vital that many other countries contribute. Germany announced it was willing to contribute to security on the border with Syria.
The Lebanese cabinet, meeting Wednesday, approved the deployment of 15,000 troops to southern Lebanon starting Thursday. Israel had said it will stop withdrawal unless those troops move in quickly. The cabinet appeared divided about Hizbullah's arms, which Hizbullah has said it will not forgo. That has raised concerns about the expectations for peacekeepers.
Douste-Blazy said the arms were an issue for Lebanon's government. He said that the UN force's mandate "is aimed at helping the Lebanese Army deploy, to contribute to the return of the displaced [persons] to their homes, and to the transporting of humanitarian aid. …