U.S. Expert Sizes Up Security Situation in Lebanon
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Lebanon's Cabinet agreed today to send troops to the south of the country. The first of 15,000 Lebanese soldiers could move across the Litani River and into territory traditionally controlled by Hezbollah as early as tomorrow. Today's decision addresses one of the key clauses of the U.N. cease-fire agreement, but the cabinet stopped short of saying the army will actively disarm Hezbollah.
David Welch is assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. Earlier today I asked him whether he believes the Lebanese government is meeting its obligations under the U.N. agreement.
Mr. DAVID WELCH (Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs): Well, we'll have to see how this deployment unfurls together with this new international force that's now being composed. The requirement of the resolution is clear. There are to be no armed groups present in the south.
That happens to be the requirement of the Lebanese Cabinet, also, in decisions it took before the resolution was adopted, but also after it was adopted. I mean this is the critical concern here, that there is a sufficient security presence in the south, led by the Lebanese Army and bolstered by the international force, to ensure that we don't see a return to what happened before.
BLOCK: But there is the question of what the mechanism would be to enforce that. How would it work?
Mr. WELCH: Well, Lebanese decisions should be Lebanese law, and we interpret the Lebanese Cabinet's decision as meaning that there are no armed groups present in the area of operations of the Lebanese Army and the new force. And we expect them to take care of that.
BLOCK: You have the Hezbollah leader in the south today saying that his forces are going to hide their weapons, but they're not going to give them up. So if that's the case, what have you gained?
Mr. WELCH: Well, I'm not sure his definition of Hezbollah's compliance is the last word. I don't think they would have undertaken this cabinet position unless they had a clear understanding of how the security environment's going to be. And our standard for this is that we don't want to see a return to the situation of the past. The new rules are clear. There are to be no armed groups down there. The only security forces in that area should be the international ones and the Lebanese Army.
BLOCK: Isn't it fair to say, though, that the Lebanese government does not have a particularly strong track record of standing up to Hezbollah in the past?
Mr. WELCH: Well, this is why they need help. Let's understand too that, I mean, Lebanon hasn't deployed its army to the southernmost part of its country in any effective way for three decades. So the decisions they're taking are new for them. They're difficult because of the divisions within Lebanon, but I think the support of the Lebanese people is not only for a solution to this problem but to assure that this isn't going to happen to them again, where a state within a state, an armed militia, can decide that it knows what the interests of the nation and the interests of the people are and launch a war against somebody else. I don't think anybody wants to see a return to that situation.
Look, they need help. They need confidence to go about doing this. That is one reason why we have this resolution and why we have international support coming in.
BLOCK: That international support that you mention, though, it would seem that that would hinge on this whole question of disarming of Hezbollah. You have the French foreign minister saying now that his country needs a guarantee that Hezbollah has in fact disarmed if he's going to send his country's troops to south Lebanon.
Mr. WELCH: Well, I think they're being very straightforward about this. I mean, this was the decision of the international community. It was not to go in and disarm them directly, but it was to go into an environment where they would not be present in an armed fashion. I agree with you. This is a moment of test, not just for Lebanon but also for the international community. Most successful peacekeeping operations are built on the consent of the parties and in this case, consent of the parties also includes that you aren't going to have the armed Hezbollah presence in the south that there was before.
BLOCK: Would you then have to assume that Hezbollah is an honest broker in working out this deal?
Mr. WELCH: I'm sorry. I make no assumptions about their honesty or their participation in the deal. We're dealing with the government of Lebanon. Government of Lebanon, it may have its difficulties domestically and externally, including with some who might interfere in this process from outside, but at the end of the day they have to stand up as a government and perform.
BLOCK: Those people who want to interfere from the outside, you're referring to, I assume, Iran and to Syria?
Mr. WELCH: It seems that way. They seem to be the only ones complaining about this process moving ahead.
BLOCK: I'm curious about that because the Israeli foreign minister says her country has evidence that Iran is already rearming Hezbollah through Syria. Do you agree with that?
Mr. WELCH: I don't doubt that they have the intention to do so.
BLOCK: But are they already doing it?
Mr. WELCH: I can't speak to that right now. We'll have to see what evidence the Israelis have of that. I have a very strong concern about their observation of the new rules that are in this resolution, which are quite clear. There are no weapons supposed to go into Lebanon except to the government of Lebanon or to any authorized forces there, like the international forces. That means that Syria and Iran have to obey those new rules. If they don't obey them, well, that matter will come in front of the international community and we'll have to decide what to do about it.
BLOCK: Secretary Welch, thanks very much.
Mr. WELCH: Thank you so much. Have a good day.
BLOCK: David Welch is assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. He spoke with us from his office at the State Department.
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