Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Tense new year in Lebanon

News that Saudi Arabia is to finance the Lebanese army could upset the political configuration in the country, writes Hassan Al-Qashawi in Beirut

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Lebanon saw out 2013 at a heightened pitch of political and security tension, what with the assassination of Future Movement politician and former finance minister Mohamed Shatah, attempts to ignite the southern front as a result of missiles fired into Israel by unknown persons, and the suspected involvement of individuals from the Palestinian refugee camps in the bombing that killed Shatah given that the car involved was stolen by a gang from the Ain Halwa Camp and probably booby-trapped there.

Yet, perhaps the most salient development bringing 2013 to a close in the country was Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s announcement that Saudi Arabia would be giving the country $3 billion to re-equip its army and that the source of the arms would be France.

The announcement of the Saudi munificence, which had probably been agreed upon some time ago, coincided with the funeral of Shatah, an advisor to Future Movement leader Saad Al-Hariri. The climate was fraught as Lebanon’s Sunni community charged that it was being targeted, and the 14 March Movement, itself led by the Future Movement, called for the creation of a government made up of itself and other moderate forces.

This government would not include representatives of the 8 March Coalition led by Hizbullah, it said, which officials of the Future Movement have openly or by implication accused of being behind the assassination of Shatah.

It appears that the 14 March forces, which have grown increasingly frustrated by the ongoing control of Hizbullah and its allies over the Lebanese government through the caretaker cabinet that officially resigned in March, have now decided to turn the shock of the assassination of Shatah into a means of injecting renewed vigour into their Movement.

A similar process occurred following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005, a tragedy that galvanised the 14 March forces and Sunni community into launching a political drive that built up momentum until it won a number of major victories, not least of which was the departure of the Syrian army from Lebanon.

However, their rivals, the 8 March Coalition, which have the advantages of numbers, arms, and government control and which feel they have been scoring victories in Syria, have not been prepared to make concessions in response to the bloodshed in Beirut in this latest and other bombings. The coalition’s spokesmen have made this amply clear amidst expressions of condolence, sympathy and other formalities demanded by the occasion.

The Hizbullah-led 8 March Coalition has warned President Suleiman and Tamam Salam, the minister charged with forming a new government, against any attempt to form a government without its approval, arguing that this would lack parliamentary legitimacy and would be unlikely to obtain the necessary vote of confidence in view of the position of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. The latter’s parliamentary bloc could swing the balance between the 14 March and 8 March movements, and it has made it clear that it favours a national unity government.

In addition, any government that did not include the 8 March Coalition, in other words Hizbullah, would be unconstitutional as it would exclude the Lebanese Shia. More ominously, behind such arguments there could also lurk the threat of military muscle, with some fearing that if the 14 March Movement and other political forces go ahead with plans to form a new government Hizbullah and Amal might stage a repeat of their displays of might on 7 May 2008 when the groups’ militias stormed Beirut and the Druze areas in the mountains.

However, with the Saudi grant offering French-made arms, a new factor has entered the equation. The announcement of the Saudi grant, timed as it was, has made it clear that Riyadh, contrary to what some had thought, has not turned its back on Lebanon and on the 14 March Movement in particular. It has also indicated that Riyadh and Paris are determined to boost their old alliance by working more closely together in an area of common concern, namely Syria and Lebanon.

The news did not thrill Hizbullah, which eyes Saudi military aid with deep suspicion. News outlets associated with Hizbullah have gone so far as to call the $3 billion grant a “bribe” and suggested that the purpose of strengthening the Lebanese army is ultimately to do away with Hizbullah.

While Hizbullah may be correct in assuming that a strong Lebanese army will reduce the influence of the group’s militias, its other assumption — that the Lebanese army will turn against it — has little basis in fact. The Lebanese army may be closely bound to western powers, most notably the US and France, and it may have a large Christian contingent in it. However, the Lebanese Shia, Hizbullah’s main support base, is also a large and influential component in the army, and the latter could not turn against Hizbullah without risking a deep schism in its own ranks.

In addition, many Christian officers in the army are inclined to support Michel Aoun, a former army commander and currently a Hizbullah ally. Perhaps even more importantly, the army realises that any confrontation with Hizbullah, which has scored major victories over Israel, could end in the destruction of both sides.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah has been keen to strengthen its relationship with the army and has displayed considerable respect for the institution. In recent events where the army has engaged in confrontations with fundamentalist Sunni forces, Hizbullah and the army have displayed a united front. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Lebanese army has long sought to portray itself as a national and non-sectarian institution, or at least as an institution in which sectarian affiliations are reduced to a minimum. This is because on Lebanon’s fraught sectarian checkerboard, any signs of favouritism towards this faction or that could undermine the unity of the army and threaten the unity of the country as a whole.

Nevertheless, the Saudi-French arms deal to strengthen the Lebanese army could alter the political terrain in Lebanon. A stronger Lebanese army means a stronger Lebanese state, and a stronger state would help the army perform its security functions, especially along the border with Syria. This would also help reduce Hizbullah’s security role, which has recently been expanding.

Just as importantly for Lebanon, a strong, well-equipped and modern army will reduce the likelihood that any of the rival factions, whether Hizbullah or others, will resort to military adventures that could threaten to drag the country back into civil war. The stronger and more cohesive the national army, the harder it becomes to imagine a repeat of Hizbullah’s military display of 7 May 2008.

Another outcome of the Saudi-French deal is that it should help to repair the relationship between the Lebanese army and the Future Movement and Sunni community. This had been severely strained following the confrontations between the army and Sunni extremist forces, such as the clashes between the army and the followers of the Salafi sheikh Ahmed Al-Asir in Sidon last summer.

Yet, it is important to bear in mind that it will be many years before the effects of this boost to the Lebanese army will be felt. Armies are not built in days or months, but rather in years and decades. It is therefore appropriate to regard the Saudi grant as a mid to long-term investment in the development of the Lebanese state by developing its military.

It follows that attempts on the part of the 14 March forces to capitalise politically on the assassination of Mohamed Shatah and the Saudi grant are likely to be counter-productive. Above all, they will give the 8 March Coalition excuses to undermine efforts to develop the Lebanese army when these in fact serve the interests of all Lebanese and not just the 14 March Movement.

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