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Skirmishes in Bekaa Valley risk the faith in Lebanon's army

Given the divisions of the Lebanese political class, political cover for the army is rarely forthcoming. So the army has to resolve situations by building consensus around its strategy.

Last week, two Lebanese army members were killed in the village of Arsal, in the Bekaa Valley, after they shot a man whom they were pursuing. The incident highlighted the tensions between the army and Lebanon's Sunni community. Arsal is a Sunni outpost in a mainly Shia area.

There are two versions of what happened. The first, presented by the army, is that the soldiers were killed in an ambush. The villagers, in turn, said that they initially thought that it was Hizbollah who had entered Arsal to abduct the suspect, Khaled Hmayed. They said that Mr Hmayed was shot in his vehicle, and his body dragged out, leading to a firefight. Whichever version is true, the episode showed that the army must urgently address its Sunni problem.

The rancour of the Sunnis is a result of two major factors. There is a Sunni perception that the army sympathises with Hizbollah, particularly after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. The army is accused of having done nothing to prevent Hizbollah from overrunning western Beirut in May 2008, and indeed of having collaborated with the party. There is also a profound sense that most Christian officers are loyal to Michel Aoun, Hizbollah's chief Christian ally, so that they will favour the party's interests.

This view is supported by the facts, even if there is some exaggeration. The armed forces, particularly the intelligence service, were close to the Syrians when they were in Lebanon. Often Lebanese intelligence personnel arrested individuals whom the Syrians wanted, before handing them over to their Syrian counterparts. The relationship improved when Gen Aoun, a former army commander, and Hizbollah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah signed an accord in early 2006, consolidating their political ties.

However, it cannot be said that the army is compulsively anti-Sunni. A substantial number of troops are Sunnis and, as a national institution, the armed forces cannot afford to alienate so major a Lebanese religious community. Yet the army has complicated loyalties, and is, to borrow from the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi, a "house of many mansions". Like the society it serves, army members have myriad, frequently clashing loyalties, over and above which lies a unifying sense of corporate solidarity.

In the past two presidential elections, the natural choice for president has fallen on the army commander. The current president is Michel Suleiman, who succeeded Emile Lahoud as head of state. Mr Lahoud was also his predecessor as army commander. The leading candidate in the next election in 2014 is the current commander, Jean Qahwaji, who reportedly has the support of Hizbollah. This reality pushes commanders to step carefully, making it difficult for the army to act decisively in crises.

In fact, it has become almost a truism to underline that the army needs "political cover" for any initiative to put an end to fighting in a given situation, or to alter the parameters of its interventions. But given the divisions of the Lebanese political class, political cover is rarely forthcoming, so the army has to resolve situations by building consensus around its strategy.

The politicisation of the army by ambitious commanders is not good. Nor is it healthy that at every election a military man should be a favourite. In Lebanon's early post-independence history, only one man, Fouad Chehab, came from the military ranks, and he displayed marked antipathy for the politicians. His election after the civil war of 1958 was not due to lobbying on his part but was the result of international efforts to resolve the Lebanese crisis by bringing in someone who had shown respect for constitutional institutions.

And even then, Gen Chehab's tenure was controversial. Military intelligence came to play a leading role in national politics, much to the antipathy of politicians. This led to what would become a recurring, if idealised, dichotomy: a military institution seen as being honest and above political cleavages separate from a fractured, self-seeking political class in search of patronage opportunities, usually at the expense of Lebanese society.

In the post-war period, foreign powers, among them the United States, have sought to build up the army's effectiveness to ensure that the state should have a monopoly over the use of violence. This was principally aimed at disarming Hizbollah, which claims that it needs to hold on to its weapons to protect Lebanon from Israel. The army has benefited from outside aid, but the results have been mixed.

For example, in 2007, the army fought courageously against Fatah Al Islam militants in the Nahr Al Bared refugee camp near Tripoli. However, the units were obviously ill-equipped early in the battle. Eventually, when military supplies and ammunition arrived from the United States, the source of much of the army's weaponry, there was progress in overcoming Fatah Al Islam's resistance. Yet at no point did the army's high command seem to have a well-thought-out plan to take over the camp, which was levelled.

As military units continue to surround Arsal in search of those who killed the two soldiers, the army command should keep one thing in mind: Lebanese Sunnis must be persuaded that they are not targets of a military that has sided with the regime they oppose in Syria. Perhaps Gen Qahwaji's presidential aspirations will be useful. He cannot afford Sunni animosity if he seeks the presidency. Then again, a mood of conciliation must be built on more than one man's political fervour.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling

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