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How Turkiye can help prevent war spreading to Lebanon

Published : Wednesday, 3 April, 2024 at 12:00 AM  Count : 111

How Turkiye can help prevent war spreading to Lebanon

How Turkiye can help prevent war spreading to Lebanon

Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, on Friday renewed his threat to Lebanon following an assassination operation on a Hezbollah officer in the south of the country. He said that Israel was moving "from defense to pursuit of Hezbollah." He noted that Israel had already killed more than 320 members of the group, adding: "Wherever we need to act, we will act."

Hezbollah is cornered. Although it is trying to avoid an all-out confrontation, the group might be pushed into one. As Israel pokes the group and hunts down its operatives one by one, it might have no option but to retaliate. This would be disastrous: Israel would destroy Beirut and Hezbollah would destroy northern Israel.

On the regional level, we are witnessing a convergence: Turkiye is getting closer to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Erdogan in February visited Egypt for the first time in more than a decade and has also been liaising with Riyadh on Gaza. Meanwhile, in November, Ebrahim Raisi became the first Iranian president to visit Saudi Arabia in more than 10 years, as he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi during an Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Jeddah.

Everyone knows that cooperation is needed to face the calamity in Gaza. Despite the mistrust that plagues regional relations, there is a necessity to come together to face the looming danger Gaza poses for the entire region. Regional states do not want the war to expand to Lebanon.

We need a buffer. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon was supposed to create this buffer, but today it is being proved that it is not enough. Here, Turkiye can play a role, as UNIFIL already has a Turkish contingent. This can be the starting point for an increase in military cooperation between Lebanon and Turkiye. An increased Turkish presence could offer a graceful exit for both Hezbollah and Israel. Israel would not hit a NATO member and Turkiye would make sure Hezbollah kept its weapons in the basement.

On the other hand, Ankara would want something in return for protecting Lebanon and, by default, protecting Hezbollah from total destruction. More than this, a war would mean the political end of the group. An Israeli war on Lebanon would devastate the country and have terrible consequences for the region. Turkiye would probably want a concession on Syria from Iran. It wants to see Bashar Assad weakened and for Syria to be made safe for refugees to return. The Syrian refugees hosted by Turkiye are causing a domestic problem, as there is growing popular discontent with their presence.

The US might also accept such an agreement. The limiting of Israels ability to maneuver in Lebanon would be welcomed in the current circumstances. The Netanyahu government, which is controlled by extremists, is becoming a burden and embarrassment for the US. A functioning buffer zone would make the White Houses job of taming Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies much easier. It would also facilitate US special envoy Amos Hochsteins task of delimiting the southern Lebanese border with Israel and force everyone to respect UN Security Council Resolution 1701 without resorting to war.

Of course, Hezbollah would not welcome a Turkish presence in the south of Lebanon, as this would greatly limit its movements. However, faced with a choice between devastation and accepting the presence of Turkish troops, the latter might be seen as the lesser evil. As I have written previously, getting Hezbollah to withdraw from the south would be extremely difficult as the group is entrenched in society. Its members live there. Hence, the best bet is to make sure the group keeps its weapons in the basement. UNIFIL has been unable to make sure this is the case, but a Turkish presence would be more forceful.

On the other hand, Turkiye would also make sure Israel does not conduct any operations in Lebanon. The Israelis would not want to face the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone. The Turkish troops could also make sure that neither Hezbollah nor Israel breaches the terms of UNSC Resolution 1701.

However, for Lebanon to have any type of arrangement with Turkiye, it needs a functioning government. A caretaker government cannot enter into such an agreement with another state. Here, Hezbollah needs to make another concession: allowing the election of a president and the formation of a government.

Both the president and the government need to be acceptable to the international community. So far, Hezbollah has been insisting on Suleiman Frangieh. Iran might have to exert pressure on the group to accept a consensual president.

Tehran wants to avoid an all-out war at all costs. Though Iran leaves internal Lebanese matters to Hezbollah, it could pressure the group if its security is threatened.

In the current circumstances, a Turkish presence in Lebanon might be the best option to prevent an assault on the country. It would provide a buffer that might prevent an undesired escalation.

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