Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lebanon's army is balanced between state and Hizbollah

On Sunday and Monday, the Lebanese army fought against followers of the Salafist sheikh Ahmad Al Assir near the city of Sidon. This combat, the most serious challenge to civil peace in Lebanon since the war in Syria began, shone a light on some of the problems Lebanon faces as it seeks to avoid collapsing into civil war.

Mr Al Assir's decision to attack the army on Sunday - leading to the death of two officers - reflected the mistrust that many in the Sunni community feel towards the military. There is a perception among Sunnis that the army is an instrument of Hizbollah. This goes back to May 2008, when the party overran predominantly Sunni neighbourhoods in western Beirut, and the army allowed it to happen.

Sunnis in the Sidon suburb of Abra, where Mr Al Assir was based, were particularly angry that the army had taken no measures to oppose Shia militias that fired dozens of rockets into Abra during an armed confrontation early last week. When, on Sunday, two people close to Mr Al Assir were mistreated at an army checkpoint, he ordered his men to fire on the soldiers and called on Sunnis in the armed forces to desert, which the army could not let pass.

The army has indeed been close to Hizbollah, but this is not surprising. For 20 years now the senior officer corps has been made up largely of men promoted by pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians and parties including Hizbollah. Christian officers close to Michel Aoun did not fit into this category, but since he returned to Lebanon in 2005, Mr Aoun has sided with Syria and Hizbollah, so that his officers too now lean towards Hizbollah.

However, it is equally true that the army today is the prime defender of civil peace in Lebanon, and that it reflects the country's communal mosaic. The army command is careful not to take positions that might alienate its substantial Sunni rank and file. Efforts to cast doubt on the military's allegiances risk implicitly legitimising actions such as those of Mr Al Assir and his sympathisers, who regard the army as an enemy - "an Iranian army," Mr Al Assir has called it.

This points to another reality highlighted by Mr Al Assir's action: a sense that the agenda of Lebanon's Sunni community has been hijacked by its extremists. After the fighting near Sidon, mainstream Sunni politicians expressed support for the army, but avoided condemning Mr Al Assir. That was not because they agreed with him - indeed many saw him as a menace - but because they did not want to alienate the Sunni street, where Mr Al Assir's hostility to Hizbollah is popular.

The influence of Sunni Salafist groups has often been exaggerated. However, it's also true that at a time when the principal Sunni organisation, the Future Movement, is in a state of relative disarray, with its leader Saad Hariri having been absent from Lebanon since 2011, smaller, Islamist groups have gradually filled the vacuum. That is why moderate Sunni politicians must not allow the Abra incident to lead to their marginalisation among Sunnis, or permit other communities to portray them as being anti-state.

To clear up any ambiguities, Mr Hariri took to the airwaves on Monday to affirm support for the army. He remarked: "Perhaps the method [of dealing with Mr Al Assir] was harsh, but anything against the state must be dealt with in the same manner and no one is bigger than [the] country … if anyone believes the opposite, a day will come and they will ask the state for help and protection."

While this may not have pleased some Sunnis, Mr Hariri was plainly referring to Hizbollah when he stated "We will continue to say that arms are the main problem in the country."

Mr Al Assir picked a fight with Hizbollah and the state that he had little chance of winning. Sidon is a strategic passageway for Hizbollah, linking the predominantly Shia southern suburbs of Beirut to the party's stronghold in southern Lebanon. Mr Al Assir's warnings that he would close the road became intolerable to Hizbollah, all the more so as the cleric might have benefitted, in the event of broader fighting, from the assistance of Salafist groups in the Ain Al Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon.

Ultimately, the army defeated Mr Al Assir, who fled to an unknown location. Hizbollah can be happy with this, but so can the Lebanese in general. While Hizbollah undoubtedly is to blame for the rising tensions in Lebanon, due to its military interference in the Syrian conflict on the side of the Al Assad regime, inside Lebanon the party is keen to preserve civil peace, to protect its rear.

Mr Al Assir's abrupt departure may momentarily calm what had been a dangerous sectarian flashpoint in Sidon. While Salafist groups took to the streets in several places in support of the sheikh, they did so in a disorganised way that by one day later seemed largely to have been contained.

The best option for those Lebanese opposed to Hizbollah is to stabilise Lebanon politically, and allow the party to be drawn deeper into the Syrian quagmire. Improved arms supplies to the Syrian rebels will make them a far tougher opponent, and Syria's conflict will drag on, with Hizbollah losing more and more men.

Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently invited those who opposed the party to fight against it in Syria, not in Lebanon. The party's foes should take him up on the offer. Most Lebanese don't want and cannot afford a devastating sectarian war. Mr Al Assir failed to grasp this, which explains why few people regret his setback.

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