Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Rallying around the army

Amply supplied with US and French weapons, the Lebanese army is keeping the peace in Lebanon, writes Hassan Al-Qashawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

Across Lebanon’s normally divided political spectrum, there is one point of agreement: everything must be done to strengthen the Lebanese army, especially in the face of increased jihadist threats.

Pockets of hardline Islamists are still holed up in the rugged mountain range straddling the country’s border with Syria. Their numbers are not large, but their very existence raises concern in a country that has known the horrors of sectarianism in the past.

But help to the Lebanese army is on its way, and a number of nations, including Iran, have offered assistance.

The French are about to ship the first consignment of a $3 billion arms deal with the Lebanese army. The Saudis, who financed the deal, are also giving the Lebanese a grant of $1 billion that will be split evenly between the army and police. Saad Al-Hariri, the leader of Future Current, is in charge of dispensing the grant.

Iran is also offering weapons to Lebanon, including shoulder-held antitank rocket launchers. Its offer has the support of Defence Minister Samir Moqbil and the Hezbollah-led 8 March Alliance. But it has been largely ignored by the government due to opposition from the pro-Saudi and pro-Western 14 March Alliance.

The Iranian offer may also face legal difficulties connected with the UN sanctions on Tehran. Washington, the main supplier of weapons to Lebanon, is almost certain to oppose any involvement by the Iranians in Lebanese military affairs.

After the Lebanese civil war ended in the 1980s then army chief Emile Lahhud bought a large consignment of used American weapons from a dismantled US base in Germany. Since then, the Americans have given aid worth $70 million or more to the Lebanese army. The latest American shipment, believed to have been essential in keeping the jihadists at bay, consisted of 70 heavy artillery pieces and 500,000 shells.

Because the Lebanese army uses US weapons and logistics, the massive French consignments of weapons may not lead to a significant change in its performance in the short term.

It will take considerable training and restructuring to make full use of the French weaponry, and even Hezbollah, an organisation that makes a habit of lashing out at the Americans, doesn’t mind seeing the Lebanese army cooperating with Washington.

This creates an interesting anomaly in regional politics, in which Hezbollah is backed by Iran but is working closely with the US-equipped Lebanese army.

According to well-informed sources, the Americans earlier scuttled Lebanese proposals to buy MiG fighter jets from Moscow, prompting Beirut to ask Moscow for attack helicopters instead.

For some time, the Americans have defended their monopoly over the supply of weapons to Lebanon. But they seem to have relaxed their position of late.

However, Washington is still investing time and effort in the Lebanese army, which it sees as a bulwark against jihadism. It continues to provide the army with weapons, and so far it has said nothing about the army’s close cooperation with Hezbollah.

The army has acquitted itself brilliantly so far, managing to stay on good terms with all the sects in the country and working closely with Hezbollah while maintaining its traditional bonds with its Maronite-Sunni support base.

In a country where sectarian sentiments can be ruffled by the simplest of events, the Lebanese army has managed to interfere only when needed, but then without delay.

Since March 2008, when Hezbollah and Amal fighters deployed in Beirut to protest against a government decision to dismantle Hezbollah’s communication network, the army’s cohesion has been repeatedly tested.

However, it has managed to rise to such occasions, taking firm action in Arsal and northern Lebanon to defuse sectarian tensions and disproving claims that it favours Sunnis over Shiites.

Historically, the Lebanese army was largely a Maronite force, but now more than half its personnel are Sunnis, some say because the Christians are no longer interested in joining its ranks.

Hezbollah, currently in alliance with former army chief Michel Aoun, has proved itself capable of close and steady cooperation with the government, a policy which has helped defuse the accusation that Hezbollah’s weapons are a source of instability in Lebanon.

As things stand, the Lebanese army has emerged as the least sectarian institution in the county, the one most capable of acting impartially in times of crisis, and the one leading the fight against foreign jihadists.

In order to play this role to the full, it needs more weapons and training, and for now it is getting almost as much as it asked for.

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