Lebanon's elusive defence
Despite the weakness of the Lebanese army, and recent clashes with Israel, Lebanon is no further forward towards a national defence strategy, writes Lucy Fielder in Beirut
Hizbullah's weapons were once again the topic of discussion for Lebanon's many sectarian and political chiefs last week when leaders sat down in the Beiteddin summer presidential palace for another round of national dialogue that began in 2006.
Many analysts see Lebanon as no closer to the holy grail of a "national defence strategy", and the formidable weapons arsenal that Hizbullah keeps to fight Israel is off the table of discussion. Ideas range from incorporating Hizbullah's units into the army -- advocated by the Shia political and military group's opponents and highly unlikely without a radical shift in relations with Israel -- to enshrining cooperation between the army and resistance fighters in some form of agreement.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, a rightwing Christian figure and strident critic of Hizbullah, proposed the former plan during last week's talks, to vehement opposition from Hizbullah's representatives. "The first idea is impossible in the current situation; as to the second, there is already enough cooperation between the army and Hizbullah to satisfy the resistance," said retired Brigadier- General Amin Hotait, a strategic analyst and professor at the Lebanese University. "So I expect no change in the status quo, and no defence strategy," he added.
Hotait saw the dialogue as having started out as an attempt to disarm Hizbullah, but that as that plan failed, it persists as little more than a mechanism to release tensions that frequently plague the fragile political balance. "These talks will continue, mainly to get the conflicting sides together and keep the situation calm and release tension. It will take on the aspect of an advisory body," he said. Hizbullah and its allies also now how have an effective veto in the national unity government sworn in last year.
But border clashes between the Lebanese army and Israel in Adaysseh in early August, in which two soldiers and a local journalist were killed on the Lebanese side, as well as an Israeli officer, lent some urgency to the related subject of "arming the army". Lebanon's army is notoriously weak militarily and the long civil war that split the country along sectarian lines has not been forgotten. So regardless of who prompted the clash (it was widely seen in Lebanon that the army came under attack), the fact that the Lebanese army fought Israel and killed a high-ranking officer has been a source of great national pride.
The fire-fight started when Israel pruned a tree across the electrified border fence. The UN border force, UNIFIL, found the tree to be on Israel's side of the UN-drawn "Blue Line' that separates the two countries, but on the Lebanese side of a security fence that does not follow the border precisely, which may have given rise to confusion. Hizbullah, which stayed out of the incident and enjoys close relations with the army, joined the chorus of praise.
"This attention on the Lebanese army is putting to rest this post-2006 Western project, which is to try to convert the Lebanese army into an anti-Hizbullah and anti-terror mechanism," said Karim Makdissi, assistant professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut. "It brought into the open the silliness and hypocrisy of Western aid to the Lebanese army, which is not serious at all in terms of what it needs to defend the country." Support for the army had been political, rather than military, he said.
The US and several European states, most notably France, pledged increased support for the army after it deployed in the south following the 2006 war with Israel. More backing was promised after the battle of Nahr Al-Bared in the north. Pan-Islamic militant group Fatah Al-Islam, which had taken shelter in the Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, attacked an army post in mid-2007. In response, the army bombarded Nahr Al-Bared camp, razing the refugees' homes amid a frenzy of national support, some stirred by rancour felt by parts of Lebanese society towards the Palestinians since civil war days. The army lost 170 soldiers and its lack of equipment was exposed.
After the August Adaysseh clash highlighted the contradiction inherent in Israel's key ally giving aid to the army of a country with which it is technically at war, Washington froze $100 million of approved funds destined for the army. Iran stepped in with an offer of help, responding to a call by President Michel Suleiman, and the United States is reviewing the hold. Hotait said US support had never been in the form of enhancing combat capacity with arms and munitions; he also saw it as unlikely that Lebanon would be able to accept arms from the Iranians, due to the diplomatic complications that would arise from receiving imports from a country under sanctions.
Makdissi sees talk of building the army, as well as the opening a few weeks ago of a bank account to enable individuals to send donations to the army, as "grandstanding", since it would take many years to build up the army into a force capable of defending Lebanon alone. Part of the political support for the armed forces was about attempting to drive a wedge between it and Hizbullah and remove any cover for resistance fighters supplied by the army, he said. "What Israel and the US don't want, above all, is to have the Lebanese army give legitimacy to Hizbullah."
With the discovery of more than 150 alleged Israeli spies in Lebanon over the last year and a half, integrating Hizbullah units into the army seems more of a pipedream than ever, analysts say. In the absence of a major geopolitical shift, the most likely outcome -- if there is any progress at all on a national defence strategy -- is a political agreement that sanctions coordination that already exists on the ground.
"The Lebanese army and the resistance have had a de facto strategy of coordination and cooperation in place, although there is no written text, since 1991," Hotait said.
Former president Emile Lahoud, who headed the army at the time, ordered that whichever is onsite at the time of a clash should fight Israel, whether the army or Hizbullah, and that they should coordinate and never come to blows. "That's the defence strategy, quite simply," Hotait said.