Tomorrow morning the UN negotiated ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon will enter into force. This represents a long-awaited milestone, and yet leaves open as many questions as it answers. We've talked before about how these much-heralded international agreements sometimes wind up doing little more than paper over differences that just burst back open as deeply as ever. Will that happen here? Here are some signs to watch for in the coming days and weeks:
1. What will Israel do with its forces currently in Lebanon - The idea behind the ceasefire resolution is that Israeli troops will end offensive operations, and gradually withdraw as international peacekeepers and the Lebanese army take their place. But with intense political pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after an operation that's seen at best as a partial victory, will the post ceasefire period be sufficiently free of provocation that Israel's guns stay quiet, and will the international force be mobilized quickly enough so that the motions of withdrawal can start?
2. Will Hezbollah comply with the resolution's requirement that it disarm south of the Litani River - Sheikh Nasrallah has said he will comply with this only once Israel leaves Southern Lebanon (including Shebaa Farms) and is replaced by the Lebanese army and an expanded UNIFIL. A dispute over this point led to impasse at a Lebanese cabinet meeting this morning, because Israel will not leave with an armed and ready Hezbollah still unchecked in what is to become the buffer zone. If not solved, this gap could yield a stand-off that quickly turns violent.
3. Will the Lebanese government be able to coopt Hezbollah into rejecting violence - As long as Hezbollah remains a guerrilla state-within-a-state in Lebanon, even if there's a semblance of partial disarmament in the south, the organization will be poised to regroup and restart its attacks. The only way to stop that is for Hezbollah to disband, or to transform into a legitimate political party. Some suggest that a package of incentives - control over ministries and resources, perhaps - might lure Hezbollah into such a conversion.
4. How quickly does an international force get mobilized - There is no agreement on when the 15,000-strong international force will be deployed, nor who will lead it. France, Italy, Turkey and others have said they'll contribute troops. The UN, largely for reasons outside the organization's direct control, is notoriously slow in getting peacekeepers out into the field. Having witnessed the US's experience in Lebanon in 1982 and in Iraq, other governments will naturally hesitate.
5. How well can a UN force rein in a terrorist group - I posed the same question some weeks ago in pondering the viability of an expanded UNIFIL as a route to resolving the conflict. If Hezbollah stands down, that's one thing. But unless they abandon or put on hold their raison d'etre of returning the region to its 1948 borders (minus the State of Israel, that is), the UN force will be faced with trying to contain an aggressive, well-armed, and sophisticated guerrilla group, something both the US military (in Iraq) and the Israel Defense Force (in Lebanon in recent weeks) have failed at. This could be a humiliating defeat for the UN, or potentially a triumph that shows the organizations relevance in an era of terror.
6. How does Hezbollah approach the arrival of a beefed up UN force - This brings up the directly-related question of how Hezbollah deals with the UN troops: in its heretofore skeleton-staffed and weakly mandated form, UNIFIL seems to have been largely ignored by Hezbollah fighters. But the augmented force will be far more heavily armed and have robust rules of engagement. Will Hezbollah want to be seen as cooperating? Will their quiescence mask behind-the-scenes plotting and rearmament?
7. What kind of mettle will the Lebanese army show - The abject failure of the Lebanese army to exert a monopoly on force in Southern Lebanon is at the root of Hezbollah's opportunism and the skirmishes that erupted into this (thus far) mini-war. Now the world is relying on Lebanese soldiers to play a major role in retaking and securing the country's Hezbollah-ridden border areas. If past is prologue, this is a recipe for continued Hezbollah infiltration. If that happens, its a matter of time before Israel comes back in in some form.
8. Do Syria and Iran still want to rumble with the world - Both governments, known to be political, financial and military backers of Hezbollah, have announced their opposition to the ceasefire resolution. Both are assumed to have been behind Hezbollah's initial provocations. In the face of UNSC unanimity and an international peacekeeping force, do they decide that the optics of trying to spoil the deal are untenable? Or do they see this as some sort of epic battle against the West that they're bent on fighting until Israel returns the Golan and the UN backs off Tehran's nuclear program?
9. What's next in Gaza - Before this last round started in early July, the big worry was friction between Israel and Gaza, brought to a head by the abduction of an Israeli soldier, subsequent military retaliation, and exchanges of rocket and missile fire. Before that, the big worry was a restive population as a result of a starved Palestinian authority that could not pay its civil servants because the flow of funds had been cut off after Hamas' election. The situation could easily boil over if subsequent international efforts are not made to extend the ceasefire to Gaza in some form.
10. What level of engagement in the conflict will the Bush Administration sustain - The speed with which the international force is mobilized, the pace at which Israel withdraws, and the role the Lebanese government plays will all be influenced by the degree to which the Administration - and others, including notable the EU and the other Permanent UNSC members - continue to pressure the parties. With an election coming up, will Bush - as never before - be willing to tie his fate to events in the Mideast he cannot control? Truth is he's tied to them like it or not.