Battle exposes tensions between Hezbollah and Lebanese army
In full view. Hezbollah fighters manning an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pick-up truck in a mountainous area around the Lebanese town of Arsal along the border with Syria, last July. (AFP)
2017/09/17 Issue: 123 Page: 12
Beirut- A recent two-phase battle against Islamic extremists in north-east Lebanon has exposed the simmering tensions, rivalries and awkward cooperation that exist between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah, both relatively powerful military forces crammed into the tiny land space of Lebanon.
First Hezbollah, then the Lebanese army took turns to battle Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and the Islamic State (ISIS) respectively in rugged barren mountains of the Qalamoun region straddling Lebanon’s north-east border with Syria.
Both campaigns ultimately were successful and Lebanon has finally rid itself of the militant presence that had been a threat to domestic stability and security for more than three years. The Lebanese army has demonstrated that it is capable of confronting and defeating non-state external threats such as JFS and ISIS. This helps validate the existing foreign military assistance programmes, especially those of the United States and United Kingdom. But as the Lebanese army’s confidence and capabilities grow, it risks aggravating the current, sometimes uncomfortable, relationship with Hezbollah.
One of the reasons the US has delivered $1.5 billion in military assistance to Lebanon since 2005 is to build up the Lebanese army as a counterweight to Hezbollah’s military might. It was never envisaged that the army would militarily confront Hezbollah — a scenario that would spark civil war.
But it was hoped that a stronger army would undermine in the Lebanese public eye Hezbollah’s rationale for maintaining its weapons. Hezbollah argues that its military doctrine, sometimes dubbed “hybrid-warfare,” in which guerrilla-style tactics are combined with advanced weapons and communications systems, is the only valid deterrence against Israel. The argument has some merit as was proven in the month-long Hezbollah-Israel war in 2006 when the Israeli military was unable to defeat the Iran-backed group. While the Lebanese army is unlikely to ever attain the strength to take on the Israeli military, it has improved its capacity over the past decade to tackle other less conventional threats to Lebanon.
The Lebanese army is often accused of actively collaborating with Hezbollah, a claim that is used to harden the case that the US should abandon its support programme. It is true that Hezbollah wields some influence within the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and, as the dominant political force in Lebanon, has influence over government decisions affecting the army.
Hezbollah has a broad base of support in Lebanon and it is unsurprising that some in the army would share the party’s anti-Israel credo. On the other hand, there are officers and soldiers that bristle at Hezbollah’s military and political power and resent having to share matters of national security with a non-state actor.
Hezbollah views a strong army, one that works with the US and British militaries, as potentially undermining its claim to be an essential asset of national defence. And lately, there have been indications that Hezbollah is growing unhappy with the army’s improved capabilities and has acted subtly to undermine the army’s credibility.
In April, Hezbollah staged a press tour of the southern border with Israel. The tour was ostensibly to show the new Israeli defensive measures along the border. But the trip, attended by more than 100 reporters, also included the unusual sight of a dozen armed and uniformed Hezbollah fighters standing beside the road in full view of the press.
The tableau was a breach of a UN Security Council resolution that forbids any weapons in the southern border district other than those of the Lebanese state and UN peacekeepers. The provocative move embarrassed the army (as well as the UN peacekeepers and the Lebanese government) and spurred General Joseph Aoun, the commander of the Lebanese army, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri to rush down to the southern border district the next day to stamp the state’s authority on the area.
Similarly, the recent battles against JFS and ISIS can be viewed through the prism of simmering rivalry and mistrust between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army.
ISIS and JFS had dominated the ground east of the Sunni-populated town of Arsal and the Christian village of Ras Baalbek since 2014. By June this year, it was evident that a battle to remove the militants was imminent. What was less clear was whether it would be waged by Hezbollah or the Lebanese army. It was Hezbollah that made the first move, sending its fighters against JFS and – in a blaze of publicity – driving them out of Lebanon inside a week. The Lebanese army was left watching on the sidelines, humiliated before its American and British patrons while an organisation classified by Washington as a terrorist group removed JFS.
With JFS gone, the pressure was on the army to dispatch ISIS with the same efficiency and speed. As it turned out, the army swiftly routed ISIS, faster and more cleanly than many expected. The army said it was not coordinating with anyone. But pro-Hezbollah media contradicted the claim by repeatedly stating there was close coordination between it, the army and the Syrian military, a move seen as another attempt to embarrass the army in front of the US and UK.
Then, just as the army was poised for the kill, Hezbollah stepped in and announced that a ceasefire deal had been arranged with ISIS that would see the extremists granted safe passage to eastern Syria in exchange for information on the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers held by the group since 2014. The last-minute deal stole some of the thunder from the army’s victory against ISIS.
Furthermore, a “victory” parade that was scheduled to be held in downtown Beirut to celebrate the army’s win against ISIS was postponed two days beforehand. The official reason was given as “logistic reasons.” The unexpected postponement has drawn anger in some quarters and raised suspicions that it is yet another example of Hezbollah exerting its influence to minimise the role of the army and dampen its recent success against ISIS.