The LAF’s House of Cards

Many Lebanese and outside observers view the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as a neutral arbiter and defender of Lebanese of all sects and political affiliations; however, the recent outbreak of fighting in Sidon between the LAF and followers of Salafi sheikh, Ahmad al-Assir, casts doubt on this convenient and widely-accepted narrative.

The violence in Sidon began on June 23, killing seventeen soldiers and a number of al-Assir’s followers. It is rooted in the challenge he and his Sunni supporters pose to Hezbollah and the state security institutions that have emerged as the party’s first line of defense in Lebanon. Al-Assir, a relatively minor player in mainstream Sunni politics, gained significant publicity for his vocal criticism of Hezbollah’s militia and its alleged presence in the Sidon suburb of Abra, where he and his followers are based. This culminated in his issuing an ultimatum to Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from Abra by Monday (the day after the fighting broke out) or face the consequences.

The Lebanese media has cast a reported attack by al-Assir and his followers on an army checkpoint as the trigger for unexpected fighting, but this fails to capture the buildup to what was actually a rather predictable conflict. By publicly threatening Hezbollah, al-Assir triggered an LAF response that Hezbollah was happy to allow. The LAF action would spare Hezbollah the burden of fighting Lebanese Sunnis in addition to Sunni rebels in Syria. Al-Assir must have foreseen this and was probably trying to pull the LAF into a confrontation with Sunnis, hoping to splinter the army’s multi-sectarian ranks and undermine what he perceives as its efforts to protect Hezbollah. Al-Assir also hoped to radicalize Sunni opinion in favor of his anti-Hezbollah agenda, sap Hezbollah’s energies in Lebanon, and possibly relieve pressure on Syrian Sunni rebels fighting Hezbollah in Syria.

As it happened, al-Assir’s challenge to the LAF was rather clumsy and failed to fragment the armed forces or pose any immediate threat to Hezbollah. However, it did expose troubling trends in the LAF’s behavior and its implications for sectarian dynamics in Lebanon—trends that have been underway for decades, and threaten to undermine the cohesiveness of a multi-sectarian institution and the popularity of mainstream Sunni politicians in favor of more radical players.

Syrian troops remained in Lebanon after its civil war ended in 1990, and effectively controlled the Lebanese Army’s goals and operations before withdrawing from Lebanon in 2005. From there on, the LAF began defining its own mission as protector of the Lebanese Republic and its citizens. It gradually emerged as the closest thing Lebanon had to a functioning national, cross-sectarian institution. By stressing its neutrality in a growing Sunni-Shia rivalry and generally refraining from using force against either side during sporadic outbreaks of Sunni-Shia violence from 2005 to 2008, the LAF avoided alienating any major Lebanese faction, even as it aggressively targeted Sunni jihadists in North Lebanon.

Lebanese politicians from all parties eagerly seized on the narrative that cast the LAF as a noble and impartial defender of the nation. With Shia Lebanese constituting around one-third of the officer corps and a majority of the rank and file, the LAF could not attempt to disarm Hezbollah’s militia without risking disintegration of the armed forces. Hezbollah therefore saw no reason to seek a conflict with the LAF, and has maintained sound relations with it. Indeed, it has eagerly nurtured the LAF narrative, championing the combination of ‘the people, army, and resistance [meaning Hezbollah’s militia]’ as the formula for a strong national defense. This served Hezbollah well by associating it with a popular national institution, and certainly did not harm the Lebanese Army, which had no appetite for a fight with the powerful militia.

Hezbollah’s Sunni rivals clung to idea that the LAF is the legitimate defender of Lebanon in contrast to Hezbollah’s illegitimate militia. Mainstream Sunni leaders argued that the LAF’s existence undermined the case for Hezbollah’s maintaining a militia to defend Lebanon. The argument is somewhat disingenuous since the LAF is unable to defend Lebanon from either Israeli or Syrian aggression, but Lebanese Sunnis clearly preferred a national military over Hezbollah. The idea of the LAF as the savior of Lebanon is by no means confined to political circles; Lebanese citizens from all sects subscribe to it in large numbers, understandably craving rare common ground and yearning for a public institution in which they could place their trust.

Buoyed by broad support from political elites in the aftermath of Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, the LAF grew increasingly confident and assertive against what threats it was able to handle. It moved forcefully in 2007 against local and foreign Sunni jihadists from a fringe radical party, Fatah al-Islam—even defying political opposition to the action from Hezbollah without jeopardizing its relationship with the party.

However, the fighting that erupted in 2008 between Hezbollah and the Sunni-affiliated March 14 forces exposed some weaknesses in the narrative of the LAF as an impartial defender of all Lebanese. When Hezbollah fighters captured Sunni areas of West Beirut in May 2008, the LAF refrained from intervening on the grounds that doing so would undermine its neutrality and unity. For many Sunnis, however, this passivity actually belied the LAF’s true allegiances; there was quiet talk in Sunni circles that the LAF was behaving unfairly by tolerating or even cooperating with Hezbollah. Even as Hezbollah fortified its defenses in South Lebanon against Israel and moved weapons from Syria over the border into Lebanon, the LAF patrolled both the border and South Lebanon and allowed Hezbollah to take such actions, obviously in close coordination with Hezbollah’s militia.

It has taken the civil war in Syria to fully expose the contradictions between the LAF’s professed mission and its actions. Whereas it has aggressively pursued Syrian Sunni rebels operating in or from Lebanese territory and Lebanese actively aiding the rebellion, the LAF allows Hezbollah a free hand to move fighters and weapons into Syria to fight on the side of the Syrian regime. The end result, deliberate or otherwise, is that the LAF is effectively protecting Hezbollah’s rear in Lebanon while its militia fights Sunni rebels in Syria—something which is not lost on Lebanese Sunnis.

This brings us back to the recent fighting in Sidon, whose significance for Hezbollah lies in its location. The city constitutes a Sunni ‘island’ essentially surrounded by Hezbollah-controlled territory. It also contains the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp which hosts large numbers of Sunni militants who are potential enemies of Hezbollah. Sidon therefore presents a problem for Hezbollah that al-Assir has only made worse—one that the party is happy to allow the Lebanese army to address. So long as the LAF continues its policies, its relationship with Lebanon’s Shia will survive or indeed grow stronger.

It is Lebanon’s Sunnis who are increasingly likely to fall out of love with the LAF. Al-Assir has gained significant sympathy among them in recent months due to his bold opposition to Hezbollah, which many Sunnis contrast with their mainstream politicians’ weak and uninspiring efforts to weaken the party. The LAF’s heavy crackdown on al-Assir’s fighters in Sidon, regardless of what actually triggered this round of fighting, has generated substantial popular Sunni resentment that was already growing due to the perceived bias of LAF actions against Sunnis since Syria’s civil war began.

To be sure, mainstream Sunni politicians denounced al-Assir for fighting the LAF and maintained that targeting the army was a ‘red line’. These politicians have some genuine sympathy for the LAF, whose soldiers are no more sectarian than other Lebanese. However, there is also some embarrassment over al-Assir’s boldness and the challenge it presents to their influence over Sunnis. Many Sunnis are angry that the LAF acts so aggressively against Sunni militants while allowing Hezbollah free reign in Lebanon and Syria. Whatever the LAF’s motives, the fact is that it confronted al-Assir hours before his ultimatum to Hezbollah was due to expire.

The LAF is trapped by its own hubris, aspirations, and constraints. It is difficult to argue that it should ignore security threats posed by Sunni militants. However, it cannot continue targeting one sect’s militants while ignoring or working with the other’s without undermining its cohesiveness and standing among Sunnis. Try as they might, Lebanon’s politicians cannot reconcile the army’s behavior with its professed mission. The LAF’s increasingly likely fall from grace is yet another example of how the civil war in Syria is exposing the contradictions at the heart of Lebanon’s institutions and public life, forcing the Lebanese to face uncomfortable truths about the myths they have constructed. 

Faysal Itani is a Middle East analyst whose focus at the Hariri Center is political economy and transition in the Arab world, with an emphasis on the Levant. 

Photo: Jad Berro

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