What next for the South Lebanon Army?
This is the military force Israel has sponsored since 1978 (formerly under the name Free Lebanon Army), manned by Lebanese nationals who share common enemies with Israel: Palestinian and Islamist radicals, the Syrian and Iranian governments. This long-standing and stable alliance comes to an end in less than three months, for Prime Minister Barak has decided to withdraw the IDF from Lebanon by July 7.
What then becomes of the SLA? Will Israel remove its heavy weapons, as a Lebanese newspaper has predicted, thereby emasculating the SLA as a fighting force?
Or will the SLA retain some form of Israeli help and fight another day? There is, in fact, a very compelling case for Israel to continue its support of the SLA.
To begin with, the SLA has to be understood for what it is - not a mercenary outfit for hire, but a cohesive, meaningful force made up of Lebanese patriots who both admire what Israel has accomplished and who despise the Hizbullah-PLO-Damascus-Teheran axis. More: the SLA controls the "security zone" along Lebanon's southern border, an area where some 100,000 or so mostly pro-Israeli Lebanese live. This has become an organic community that probably has the will to defend itself once Israeli troops leave.
But to do that requires continued Israeli support. If Jerusalem washes its hands of the SLA, it will fall apart, with officers fleeing to apartments in Israel while soldiers (and residents of the security zone) are left subject to Hizbullah's rough justice.
Hizbullah will increase operations against Israel, perhaps now joined by radical Palestinian elements. As all this comes to pass, Lebanon will sink ever deeper into the Syrian embrace and Israelis can expect more casualties, not fewer. Also, Israel's credibility as an ally and patron will be shattered.
Conversely, should Jerusalem help the SLA continue to exist and fight, count the ways Israel benefits. First, the SLA - the only Middle Eastern force actually to have fought in the battlefield with the IDF against terrorism and radicalism - offers a chance to contain violence coming across the northern border.
Second, the SLA has the potential to maintain a free enclave inside Lebanon, one that excludes Syrian and Hizbullah influence. The people of the security zone have proven their reliability and strength during a period of over two decades. The SLA has demonstrated its ability to defend itself.
Lest this sound overstated, here's a challenge: Name one village that Hizbullah took from the SLA in an frontal attack since 1990. (All of Hizbullah's advances have, in fact, resulted from Israeli withdrawals.) Third, as Syria's occupation of Lebanon has become entrenched over the past quarter century, the SLA has acquired another - quite unexpected - function: its territory has become the symbol of Lebanese hopes for independence. An autonomous SLA, free from the political costs of Israel occupying part of south Lebanon, can transform itself into a municipal police force. The autonomous region can fly the national flag, organize municipal elections, and (with the help of the Lebanese diaspora) start factories and put up radio and television stations.
The security zone could conceivably turn into the nucleus of a Free Lebanon that eventually will challenge the existing government in Beirut as well as its Syrian overlords. The dramatic student demonstrations in Beirut last week show that the rest of Lebanon also does not inertly and unendingly accept Syrian occupation. Were this challenge to succeed, Syria's dictator would be deprived of his prize conquest and be severely weakened in his confrontation with Israel.
Fortunately for Israel, the SLA's Gen. Antoine Lahad and the representatives of the Civilian Committees (self-governing councils elected by residents in the security zone, including Christians, Druse, and Shi'ites) have declared their intention to stay on and resist. It's now up to Israel to take some modest steps to help them defend the security zone. This means: allow the SLA to keep all equipment already in its hands and provision it with sufficient arms in the future; supply some financial aid during a transition period; and keep open the "good fence" border, giving zone residents access to Israel.
Israel has always helped the SLA, not for altruistic reasons but for self-interested ones - to keep Israel's many enemies away from its northernmost habitations. By continuing this policy, Jerusalem now has a chance not just to secure Metulla's tranquility but perhaps to shift the balance of power in the Middle East.