x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Lebanon’s army takes greater role as sectarian tension rises

Army expands its security role as the country faces violent polarisation related to the Syrian civil war. Bradley Hope reports

Lebanese army soldiers inspect a site where clashes took place on Saturday in the Lebanese town of Baalbek on Sunday. Ahmad Shalha / Reuters
Lebanese army soldiers inspect a site where clashes took place on Saturday in the Lebanese town of Baalbek on Sunday. Ahmad Shalha / Reuters

BEIRUT // When a wedding party moving through the Burj Al Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut refused to be searched at a Hizbollah checkpoint this month, gunfire erupted.

One Palestinian was killed and four others were injured in a rare confrontation for the camp.

“This was the first time we’ve had a fight like this in years,” said an international aid worker who visits the camp daily. “It’s tense.”

By the next morning Hizbollah and Palestinian leaders from the camp were calling for restraint, but it was the arrival of the army that prevented a larger confrontation, analysts say. At the entrances to the camp, Hizbollah fighters were replaced by soldiers, who were checking cars and groups for explosives.

Last week the army expanded its security role in Beirut even further when it struck a deal to take over dozens of Hizbollah checkpoints in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a reflection of the increasingly vital role it is playing in a country facing violent polarisation related to the Syrian civil war.

That was reinforced yesterday when Hizbollah handed over control of two checkpoints in the eastern city of Baalbek. The army also deployed troops throughout the city following a gunfight between Hizbollah and residents on Saturday that left three people dead, the state news agency reported.

“The army is the only body in Lebanon that can possibly bring security, especially at a tense time like this,” said the retired General Elias Farhat, a former spokesman for the army. “There’s no other group that everyone can trust to be fair.”

The tensions in Burj Al Barajneh are a symptom of Lebanon’s precarious security situation, which was brought home most recently by two car bombings in August that represented the worst violence since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

One car bomb targeted the Hizbollah-controlled neighbourhood of Dahiyeh in south Beirut and a nother pair hit the Sunni-dominated city of Tripoli to the north.

After the bombing in Dahiyeh, Hizbollah set up dozens of checkpoints to monitor for explosives-laden cars.

The ramping up of security, however, only intensified criticism that Hizbollah, which is by far the best-armed and most powerful political group in Lebanon, operates as a “state within a state”. The group has never revealed how many fighters it has, but is well armed and funded thanks to Iran and Syria, its key allies.

The army’s arrival last week has dampened fears that Hizbollah would continue expanding its security operations deeper into the country and reaffirmed the perception that its fighters are playing an increasingly important role in preventing greater violence in Lebanon.

Unlike the other security forces of Lebanon, the army is a multi-confessional entity. The Sunnis control the Internal Security Forces, while Hizbollah and its Shiite allies oversee the General Security directorate. By agreement the army’s commander is a Maronite Christian, but it is considered a mostly non-aligned security entity. Most Lebanese families have a relative in the armed forces.

An example of its diverse make-up came in June, when the army stormed the stronghold of the Salafist preacher Sheikh Ahmed Assir who had called for an open conflict with Hizbollah because of its support for the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria. Among the 26 soldiers killed over several days of battle were Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Druze.

The raid against Sheikh Assir was an example of the army’s growing remit. In a rare agreement, politicians from across Lebanon’s religious spectrum gave commander-in-chief General Jean Kahwaji the green light to attack, despite negative ramifications in some Sunni communities.

Similar unity in July allowed Gen Kahwaji to remain in his post despite reaching the end of his term. A two-year extension was agreed upon by the rival March 8 and March 14 alliances, with only the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Michel Aoun, dissenting.

Despite its growing importance in Lebanon’s security, the army is underfunded, ill-equipped and too small to spread out across the country. With just about 70,000 active recruits, it is unable to secure the length of the border with Syria.

That may change slightly after Barack Obama, the US president, announced $8.7 million (Dh32m) of aid for the Lebanese army on Thursday to help the army secure the borders against “terrorism” and the “transfer of illicit goods”. But that will mostly come in the form of all-terrain vehicles and other non-deadly equipment.

What’s more, the army derives its power from a political agreement in Lebanon that is under increasing pressure. With the country’s politicians locked in a battle over forming a new government and a range of other issues, the army is finding it has to walk a fine line in deploying its troops.

“The army cannot impose security without a solid political agreement,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. “It is very hard put to use its force. In any situation where its soldiers are shooting at Sunnis or Druze or Christians or Shia, it’s problematic. They can be good peace keepers, but they cannot fight very much in Lebanon.”

bhope@thenational.ae