Sending in the troops
The Lebanese army is to finally head south. But what can it do when it gets there, Lucy Fielder asks
As ensuring Israel's security inevitably shifts into focus for the international community and media, north of the Blue Line has rarely felt so vulnerable. UN Resolution 1701's "cessation of hostilities" brought respite for the Lebanese after a month of unprecedented bombing, the ferocity of which was not seen even during the ruinous 1975- 90 Civil War. But while the resolution banned Hizbullah from all operations and placed blame squarely on its shoulders for triggering the war by capturing two Israeli soldiers 12 July, it prohibited Israel from "offensive" operations only, leaving it free to wage any operation it wishes -- even those that look like war -- in the name of "self-defence". As Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press, Israel's army retained a tenuous grip on small pockets of the south, although retreating. Lebanon's army is expected to start moving into the rubble and bomb-strewn south, perhaps by today.
Last week Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that the movement agreed to the deployment of Lebanese troops with a bolstered United Nations (UNIFIL) border force. Hizbullah had previously rejected such a deployment, though on practical grounds, not in principle. The move was almost certainly to deflect growing international clamour for an internationally enforced buffer zone. With unprecedented domestic political unity behind troop deployment, Lebanon proposes to send a force of 15,000 troops, to be bolstered by a UNIFIL force expanded from 2,000 to 15,000 under 1701.
"The army has been waiting for this mission for a long time. By not being given that opportunity, the army felt deprived of a certain honour to really safeguard the sovereignty of the state and be the only legitimate armed force of the state," says former general and military analyst Nizar Abdul-Qader.
Lebanon's absent army came under the spotlight after Security Council Resolution 1559 was passed in September 2004 calling for all militias in Lebanon to be disarmed. Hizbullah was allowed to retain its arms to resist Israel, the area between the Litani River and the Israeli border remaining largely under Hizbullah's control since the resistance movement drove the Israelis out in May 2000 ending a 22-year occupation. Nonetheless, and particularly following Syria's withdrawal last year, voices within Lebanon calling for army control over the whole of Lebanon grew louder.
"We're waiting for the council of ministers to decide the purpose of the army in the south," said former general Amin Al-Hteit, a military analyst who drew the "Blue Line" border between Israel and Lebanon after May 2000. "If it decides it is defence -- to confront Israel -- that would be an impossible mission. Even if we sent 50,000 soldiers, it would take Israel 48 hours to destroy the army."
Wresting Hizbullah's arms is seen as likely to spark civil war, particularly after its successes against Israeli troops in the latest conflict. But analysts agree the proposed force is adequate for extending the state's sovereignty over southern Lebanon and helping to protect its citizens, the army already having gained experience of stabilising pockets of disturbance during the early 1990s.
"It's a peace-keeping role," former navy commander Samir Al-Khadem said. "Maybe the army is not well-equipped if we compare Israel and Lebanon, but it is able to achieve this kind of task." But as the role will be embarked upon in the absence of a permanent end to hostilities, and almost certainly before Israel has fully withdrawn, troops could conceivably be caught in crossfire, or even face direct attack. "If Israel violates the ceasefire it's the United Nations' job to report back to the Security Council," says former general and strategic analyst Elias Hanna.
Although it is not yet clear what would happen if fighting between Hizbullah and Israel flared up again, or if Israel again targeted Lebanese civilians, the army would fight if Israel struck it, the analysts said. "We should remember, the army was rebuilt after the war with an ideology that is with the resistance and against Israel," Hteit said. "Where the Lebanese army encountered Israeli forces in Tyre, Sidon and Baalbek this month, it confronted them with the weapons it had. In Sidon, the navy tried to land on the coast and the Lebanese army fought it back." Israel also bombed Lebanese army positions, including an army engineers' barracks. "We had 43 military martyrs in this war," Hteit said.
Lebanon's army numbers 38,000 to 40,000 personnel, including 3,000 officers. It is equipped, Hteit says, with light and medium weapons and is able to take on "limited military operations against weak armies". Lebanon has no air force and its navy consists of small gunboats but no battleships. Although it has anti-aircraft guns -- whose popping sound could be heard around the airport on the first night of open fighting -- Lebanon possesses no anti-aircraft rockets or system that could have staged a defence against Israeli F-16 fighter jets attacking Lebanon's towns and infrastructure. The paucity of Lebanon's sea defences was proven with the imposition by Israel of a naval blockade on the first day of hostilities and which remains in place at the time the Weekly goes to press.
The army consists mainly of mechanised infantry brigades and regiments, created, Abdul-Qader explained, to be able to counter an Israeli armoured thrust along the Lebanese border, like the invasion of 1982. "They were designed, based on the terrain and Israeli armaments and air superiority, to really fight a mobile, defensive battle to a depth of 40 kilometres and to inflict severe damages on the attacking force," he said. Five intervention regiments were also set up to deal with civil strife or an Israeli troop- drop behind defensive lines. Analysts say there were also seven or eight Special Forces units, expected to be of particular use now in the south.
"The army could benefit from its detailed knowledge of the terrain and detailed knowledge of the characteristics of the population, it could have great emphasis on gathering local intelligence really to help stabilise every town and every village," Abdul-Qader said.
Three or four brigades are likely to be deployed in the south, Khadem said, backed by Special Forces as well as medics and engineers to build temporary bridges. A small navy presence will be needed, he said. "Lebanon will be requesting fast patrol boats for surveillance in order to support the army to achieve its goal," he added.
Hteit says that given Lebanon's crippling (pre-conflict) $40 billion debt the army needs international assistance to upgrade its equipment. Currently it has 85 old Soviet and American tanks and 76 cannons, he said. To bring it up to equivalence with Israel's army -- a task the international community is unlikely to take up -- would cost at least $8 billion, he said.
"If the outside wants to help us that help must focus on four elements: anti-aircraft defence, marine defence, tanks and anti-tank missiles, and a new communications system that cannot be cut or scrambled easily by the Israelis," Hteit says.
At the end of the Civil War, the Lebanese army had to be radically restructured to eradicate deep sectarian divisions. As much of Lebanon split into areas dominated by particular sects, local army branches tended even more than before to reflect the make- up of areas in which they were based, so in effect brigades would be Muslim or Christian. A war against the Syrian army and formation of a military government by Maronite Christian General Michel Aoun, then head of the army, caused further rifts. General Emile Lahoud was largely credited with overhauling and uniting the army, which made him a popular choice for president in 1998. Religiously mixed brigades were formed, militiamen integrated with great success, and talk of religion was banned at all barracks. The reforms were hailed as a post-war success story.
By unwritten agreement, officers are split 50/50 between Christians and Muslims of all denominations, although Christians are fewer as a percentage of the population. In the army as a whole, 68 per cent are Muslim. Hteit and Abdul-Qader agree that Sunnis are marginally more represented than Shias, contrary to popular opinion. Hteit said 32-33 per cent of soldiers are Sunni, with about 23 per cent Shia, while Druze were around six per cent. Compulsory military service was scrapped just over a year ago.
"If the army was used against a whole sect, the army would split," Hteit said. "And if the army was used against the [Islamic] resistance, it's not only the Shias who would leave the army, 70 per cent of the Sunnis and half the Christians are with the resistance at the moment as well."
The fate of Hizbullah's weapons -- cherished by its supporters more than ever -- will be left to an internal political dialogue. At first, Hizbullah simply needs cooperate with the army, observers say. "Right now nothing is going to happen on Hizbullah's arms, not before [army] deployment. Because right now Hizbullah does not consider this a really solid and permanent ceasefire," Khadem said, pointing to what he called an "amazing" imbalance in 1701.
Much of the Lebanese army's ability to carry out its tasks relies on progress on the international front. "All sides are interested in a calm border," Khadem said. "But the cessation of hostilities should become a solid ceasefire in order for the army to carry out its duties."