Lebanon’s Military: The Unlikely Unifier

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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If politics is the art of the possible, then Tunisian politicians have shown themselves to be masters of it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Lebanon, a country where the political class is known for being fractious and primarily concerned with sectarian rather than national interests. Judging from the recent turn of events and the dismal track record demonstrated by the Lebanese political class, it seems that it might ultimately fall on the Lebanese armed forces to give the country a sense of unified purpose. Confronted with attacks from ISIS-affiliated forces, the much-criticized Lebanese army has managed to do what Lebanese politicians have failed to do: create a sense of national unity, which is what Lebanon might need most during these uncertain times.

Tunisia’s successful turn toward a more democratic governance system has many in the region wondering, what, if any, lessons can other countries learn from the Tunisian experiment. Comparing the internal developments of the two countries, Asharq Alawsat’s Eyad Abu Shakra finds that Lebanon lacks many of the elements that have ensure the success of the Tunisian case: “Alas, one finds Lebanon on the other side of the spectrum. Not only has it been without a president for several months, it also remains without a real government, without national consensus, or esprit de corps in its army and security forces. Lebanon is actually a country without a roof and walls. Its politicians and officials have no sense of responsibility, and those entrusted with its affairs do not understand what duty means. Last but not least, its citizens do not share the same allegiance, sense of belonging, or common fate.”

The lack of internal cohesion in Lebanon has been exacerbated recently by attacks from ISIS-affiliated militants aimed at destabilizing the country, which has prompted the Khlaleej Times editorial to send out a warning that unless the Lebanese political class comes together the security situation in the country is bound to worsen: “The pro-ISIS militants, namely the Al Nusra Front, which is considered to be an affiliate of Syrian Al Qaeda, has taken on the Lebanese army, and now there seems to be no going back. The most crucial aspect of this duel is that as part of a national consensus, the Hezbollah will be fighting beside the state forces, which makes the warfare a broadened sectarian conflict….If fighting in Tripoli continues for a longer period of time, then internal displacement of refugees could directly impact social harmony. Lebanon already shoulders the burden of one million Syrians since the civil strife erupted there and this new diaspora would be devastating for its economy and social harmony. The earlier the guns fall silent, the better.”

The militant attacks have also caused some friction between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. But in an op-ed on Gulf News, Joseph A. Kechichian takes issue with recent accusations from Hezbollah’s Nasrallah against the role of Saudi Arabia in Lebanon and the region: “A few days ago, Nasrallah claimed that Saudi Arabia was chiefly responsible for extremist ideologies—takfiris in his terminology—that beset the region, led by Daesh….No matter how unpalatable, Nasrallah’s perceptions touched a raw nerve in Riyadh, when Prince Mit‘ab Bin Abdullah, the country’s Minister of the National Guard and the ruler’s eldest son….Irrespective of Hezbollah’s accusations, which most Lebanese concluded were highly questionable on account of imposed conflicts that served Iranian and Syrian interests, the overwhelming majority looked up to the Kingdom as a true supporter….Interestingly, while Nasrallah lambasted Riyadh, which answered in kind, most Lebanese, including most Lebanese-Shiites rejected the clash of civilization notion that Hezbollah professed.”

Considering the long term and regional effects of the ISIS-inspired attacks, Nayla Tueni issues a call for unity on the pages of the Al Arabiya, noting: “No honorable Lebanese citizen can but revolt against this threat which targets all of us regardless of our sect, hometown and political affiliation. Supporting the Syrian revolution to topple a tyrannical regime does not at all mean supporting Islamized terrorism which is more tyrannical than the Assad regime. Al-Nusra and ISIS cannot be alternatives to the Syrian regime. There is a dire need to find a third power within the core of the revolution….No sane man in Lebanon can but stand behind the Lebanese army because the alternatives are ISIS and al-Nusra. The alternative will be the destruction of Lebanon all over again.”

In the absence of real progress on the political front reports the Lebanese website Al Manar, for now at least, the Lebanese army is taking the lead in tackling the terrorist threat: “The Lebanese army repelled a terrorist infiltration attempt carried out by Nusra militant in the Bekaa Valley near the borders with Syria. Security sources said the clashes erupted outside the towns of Deir al-Ghazal and Qusaya on Wednesday when al-Nusra Front militants tried to infiltrate into Lebanon from Syria….The Lebanese army also raided and hunted down militants involved in the incidents of Mhammara-Bhannin, northern Lebanon. Raids focused on the surroundings of Dar Salam School and Haroon mosque amid intensive army helicopters and reconnaissance flights.”

In fact it appears that, as the Gulf News editorial suggests, the army has succeeded in uniting the whole country against the militant threat: “Lebanon’s army so far seems to have been impressively successful in keeping at bay Islamist radicals who threaten to turn the country into another Syria. It is, therefore, refreshing to see gains by an army that only in the recent past stood back as an enemy’s military pounded its territory, leaving the fight for a non-state militia to win….The army may have been ineffective in its primary role as a defender of the nation from foreign aggressors, but it has so far been successful in being a unifying factor in an otherwise fragmented and fractured country. The irony of this conflict is that in an effort to break apart Lebanon, the radicals have had the contrary effect: They have united the people in an unprecedented manner.”

The army has proven itself, notes the Daily Star editorial, adding that it is now up to the politicians to do their job. Given their track record not many will be holding up their breath: “It is clear that given the right backing from all religious and political leaders, and the necessary material support, the Army can do its job, while proving it is not a sectarian body and that it is committed to the security of all Lebanese and all of Lebanon….It is also vital that the root causes of such violence as we have witnessed in Tripoli are dealt with. Yes, some people are drawn to extremist causes due to ideology, but more often, ringleaders take advantage of people’s sense of marginalization, or their poverty….The central authorities in Lebanon must now work hard to implement social policies that embrace all Lebanese, and introduce measures that are inclusive. Otherwise, extremists will continue to prey on the most destitute members of society.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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