Friday, May 22, 2015

No go zone - The army must avoid Hezbollah’s trap in Arsal

Hezbollah’s tactics in the battle for Qalamoun are becoming clearer by the day. The party is trying to push the Lebanese Army into taking an active role in eliminating the rebel and jihadist groups located in the district, in that way risking drawing the Lebanese state more deeply into the Syrian conflict.

Michel Aoun, who seeks Hezbollah’s backing for a number of reasons—supporting his own election to the presidency as well as the nomination of his son-in-law, Chamel Roukoz, as army commander—endorses the scheme. That’s not surprising. Aoun was a master at pushing the military into divisive conflicts that led to its ruin. His dismal record alone should persuade the government to ignore his advice.

For months, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime have called on the Lebanese military command to coordinate with them to eliminate Bashar al-Assad’s foes in Qalamoun. The army has tried to resist for several reasons. First, it sees no reason to take sides in a conflict in which the Lebanese state is, officially, neutral.

Second, there are a significant number of Sunnis in the army, such that siding with Hezbollah and Assad may well cause rifts or sectarian tensions inside the armed forces.

And third, jihadist groups are still holding a large number of Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage. Their fate may be tied in with how the army behaves in Qalamoun.

Until now, the army has avoided moving beyond the protection of Lebanese borders, an essentially defensive approach. In recent weeks, however, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army have begun an offensive in Qalamoun, and have taken over territory in the area of Flita, northwest of Yabroud. While they have hailed this as a major victory, the reality is that the armed groups in the area, rather than engage in fixed battles, have simply withdrawn northwards, in the direction of Arsal.

What Hezbollah probably wants to do is trap the rebel groups there, with the Lebanese Army attacking from the one side and Hezbollah and the Syrian Armed Forces from the other. This means that military coordination between the three is desirable for Hezbollah. However, this is opposed within the government by those who favor the uprising against the Assad regime.

Indeed, there have been divisions within the cabinet over whether to discuss a policy for Arsal. While Industry Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah member, said Wednesday there was such an agreement, this was later denied by the justice minister, Ashraf Rifi. Prime Minister Tammam Salam has not put the item on the agenda, principally because there is no consensus over what needs to be done.

Aoun’s and Hezbollah’s position is that the army must push the armed groups out of the outskirts of Arsal. While this sounds fine in theory, since those remote areas are within Lebanon’s borders, there are many risks involved. Once the battle is engaged, it may become unavoidable for the army to work in tandem with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, in that way foolishly wading into the Syrian quagmire.

There is also a risk that the army will be drawn further eastwards in an effort to consolidate its gains, drawing it more actively into the Qalamoun battle and exposing it to attack. At present, units more or less sit behind a static defensive line, built around a series of watchtowers that the United Kingdom helped fund, even if the army has taken high ground in the vicinity of its positions in order to better control access to these.

The Lebanese government and army must not fall into the trap being set by Hezbollah and the Assad regime. It absolutely must avoid being sucked into their losing battle in Syria. Every week, it seems, the Assad regime cedes more ground and Hezbollah’s ability to prevent this has been shown to be very limited. It makes no sense for Lebanon to take actions that run directly counter to the momentum of the Syrian conflict.

Nor should the Lebanese forget something else: there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in their country, and many of those in the area of Arsal are related to combatants in Qalamoun. Actively assisting Hezbollah and the Syrian regime to crush the Syrian rebels will only heighten tensions with the refugee population, with potentially serious consequences.

No matter how much one sympathizes with one side or the other in Syria, the fact is that Lebanon has no stake in deepening its involvement there. This is as true for the Lebanese Army as it was true for Hezbollah. Now the party is hopelessly ensnared in a war it cannot win. This should be a cautionary tale for those Lebanese who recklessly insist that the army should take a more active role in fighting Bashar Assad’s enemies.

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