Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Will Saudi aid force a rethink from Hizbollah?

The Lebanese army has received a long-awaited shipment of weapons from France, paid for through a $3 billion (Dh11bn) gift from Saudi Arabia. This highlighted the changing role of the military in a country where the dominant political force is Hizbollah with its own militia that is separate from the state.

The Saudi aid, while benefiting the army, was in effect a reward to France for its tough position on nuclear talks with Iran. But it was also an effort to build up a counterweight to Hizbollah at a time that the pro-Iranian party is caught in a grinding war in Syria on behalf of Iran and president Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

Oddly, the army has benefited from Hizbollah’s campaign. It is now deployed in areas where this was virtually inconceivable a few years ago. Widely perceived as the only institution that can maintain national stability, the army has gained by including all religious communities, which are united in working for a common purpose.

The army’s credibility took a beating during the years of the Syrian military presence, and afterwards, when Hizbollah’s refusal to surrender its weapons reflected badly on the state.

After the Lebanese conflict ended in 1990, the Syrians rebuilt the army, but also ensured it would be pro-Syrian. Having taken control of the personnel files of the military, the Syrians promoted friendly officers and marginalised opponents. They also trained officers in Syria. Meanwhile, Hizbollah was maintained as an autonomous armed force to combat Israel, creating a duality between the army and “resistance” that has plagued Lebanon.

Since then Hizbollah has opposed calls to integrate into the army, portraying itself as a more effective defender of Lebanon against Israel. In a speech in 2012, its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, barely concealed his contempt for the idea of integrating with the army. He argued that the army, as an organised institution, was unable to hide its weapons in case of war, whereas Hizbollah could.

“Therefore, those who ask for the handover of Hizbollah’s weapons to the army want the Resistance and the army to be destroyed,” Mr Nasrallah said.

Similarly, when the army surrounded the Nahr Al Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007, following the killing of 27 soldiers by jihadists, Mr Nasrallah warned it against entering the camp. This was widely criticised and, thankfully, ignored by the military command.

For a long time, the army was viewed as being under the thumb of Hizbollah, which had gained political power in the years after the Syrian withdrawal. The party and its allies retain influence over the military intelligence services and the office responsible for the promotion and posting of officers.

That situation has not greatly changed, but what has is the context. As Hizbollah has embroiled itself in the Syrian quagmire, it can no longer depict itself as a defender of the nation. Given the sectarian polarisation in Lebanon, Hizbollah has alienated Lebanon’s Sunnis. Moreover, as the war in Syria draws in Hizbollah fighters, the party knows it needs the army to maintain domestic peace and address security threats at home.

That is why Hizbollah has had to make concessions to the army. When car bomb attacks targeted Beirut’s Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs in 2013, the party set up roadblocks at every entrance. This provoked displeasure from businesses, which Hizbollah absorbed by handing the posts over to the army.

For years, Hizbollah’s foes demanded that the army be deployed along the frontier with Syria, which the party refused. Yet as tensions escalated in Syria’s Qalamoun district, along Lebanon’s eastern border, and Hizbollah moved forces there, the army’s presence became necessary to interdict resupply efforts in Lebanon by Syrian rebels and help protect villages.

Today, the army has reinforced its positions along the border, while the United Kingdom has helped it to build a string of defensive towers. At the same time, according to journalist Nicholas Blanford, the army has allowed US special forces to operate drones above the area to feed it information about jihadist groups. As the northern Beqaa Valley is a Hizbollah stronghold, the party cannot welcome these intrusions.

Not much will change in the short term between Hizbollah and the army. A confrontation is improbable. But with Lebanon so divided over the war in Syria, most Lebanese believe the army alone is capable of containing domestic unrest. This comes as Hizbollah’s fealty to Iran is bitterly contested, which means the party can no longer defend its weapons as a national need.

Will Hizbollah willingly dissolve itself as a militia? Definitely not, but with the presence of an increasingly credible Lebanese army backed by a popular consensus, the party will find it more and more difficult to justify an independent militia that refuses to recognise the ultimate authority of the state.

No comments: