News / Middle East

    Lebanese Army Faces Spillover From Syria's War

    Medics transport an injured Lebanese Army soldier during fighting against followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir in the southern port city of Sidon, June 23, 2013.
    Medics transport an injured Lebanese Army soldier during fighting against followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir in the southern port city of Sidon, June 23, 2013.
    For years, Lebanese have been saying that the Army was the only institution capable of holding the country together through its turbulent and sometimes bloody history.
     
    This past week, the Army provided fresh support for those sentiments – and drew much praise - by routing gunmen from a radical Sunni group in the port city of Sidon, 40 kilometers south of Beirut.
     
    But despite this latest success, most Lebanese are convinced the Army will be facing even bigger challenges very soon from sectarian fighting closely linked to the ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria.
     
    The Lebanese Army’s immediate challenge is to keep the peace between the country’s Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, who support opposite sides in the Syrian war.
     
    Shi’ites, who are thought to be the slightly larger group, generally support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his followers, who are largely Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ism. Lebanon’s Sunnis mainly support Syria’s anti-government rebels, who are also largely Sunnis.
     
    Complicating the issue is Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah, which is believed to be even more powerful than the nation’s 70,000-member army. 
     
    The latest skirmish
     
    This week’s crackdown in Sidon, against supporters of Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, was just the latest skirmish in the Army’s effort to maintain order. The two days of heavy fighting left 17 soldiers and as many as 30 Sunni gunmen dead.  
     
    Many critics are saying the Army now needs to follow up with tougher action against all armed groups in the country. Some are even calling for the government to declare a state of emergency.
     
    “I don’t know what the politicians are waiting for,” said retired general Hisham Jaber, who was a young Army officer in 1973 when a state of emergency was declared to deal with fighting between the Lebanon’s Muslim, Christian and Druze communities.
     
    Jaber says the army was able to stabilize Lebanon back then, giving the nation’s politicians the breathing space to at least delay an all-out civil war, which eventually broke out two years later and left 120,000 dead after 15 years of fighting.
     
    “We succeeded because we pushed the civil war back two years. And in 1973 the situation was not as bad as now,” Jabber said, adding: “Lebanon is in real danger and we have to expect war. Why are they waiting?”
     
    Declaring a state of emergency would not be easy for Lebanon’s current leadership. The country has been governed by a fragile caretaker administration since scheduled elections were postponed because of a squabble over new electoral laws.
     
    Even so, Jaber, the former military governor of Beirut, argues that a state of emergency is needed quickly so the Army can maintain order. Like most Lebanese, he believes it’s only a matter of time before the Syrian conflict spreads into his country and overwhelms it.
     
    “If there are any dramatic changes in the Syrian civil war, a prolonged fight in Damascus or the sudden collapse of the Assad regime, the war will come to Lebanon,” Jaber said, drawing on a small cigar in his office in the Verdun district of Beirut.
     
    War is spreading
     
    On a limited scale so far, it already has.
     
    Beside the latest battle in Sidon, there have been 17 incidents of serious fighting over the past year in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, between Sunni, Shiite and Alawite Muslims.
     
    Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters from a screen during a rally to commemorate Hezbollah Wounded Veterans Day in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon, June 14, 2013.Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters from a screen during a rally to commemorate Hezbollah Wounded Veterans Day in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon, June 14, 2013.
    x
    Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters from a screen during a rally to commemorate Hezbollah Wounded Veterans Day in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon, June 14, 2013.
    Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters from a screen during a rally to commemorate Hezbollah Wounded Veterans Day in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon, June 14, 2013.
    In the central Bekaa Valley, there has been an ominous increase in fighting, bombings and kidnappings. And across the country, many hardline Sunni clerics have been calling for a determined effort to push back on Shiites and bring Hezbollah under control.
     
    The call to do something about Hezbollah came after the militia’s fighters spearheaded the Assad government’s capture of the strategic Syrian town Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
     
    After the military’s crackdown in Sidon this week, Sunni Muslim leaders accused the Army of not being even-handed. Critics said the Army also did nothing to stop Hezbollah fighters and other Shi’ites from joining the fight in Syria – which they added undermined Lebanon’s policy of neutrality in the Syrian civil war.
     
    Sunni Sheikh Salem al-Rafei lambasted this week the Army for its operations in Sidon, saying it was working hand-in-hand with Hezbollah. At a press conference following a meeting of Sunni clerics, al-Rafei warned:  “We won’t intervene any longer to control the streets. Let the state be responsible for the conspiracy that some of its members are [carrying out] with Hezbollah.”
     
    And it isn’t just Sunni hard-liners criticizing the Army. An editorial in the impartial Daily Star newspaper this week praised the crackdown in Sidon but also warned, “If the authorities fail to take a comprehensive approach now, they will be guilty of allowing the Army to fall into the trap of being seen as responding selectively, which only ignites similar incidents elsewhere.”
     
    Politician Mostapha Allouch, a member of parliament for the opposition Future Movement, a moderate Sunni party, said sectarianism is corroding the Army. “The Lebanese Army is perceived to turn a blind eye to Hezbollah’s behaviors and often conspires with the party and their local allies against Sunnis,” he said.
     
    Army dismisses criticism
     
    Army commanders dismiss the accusation, saying they are even-handed and that Hezbollah has not been attacking the Army or seeking to provoke sectarian warfare in Lebanon.
     
    “The Lebanese Army is united and has not assaulted any specific sect,” said the Army’s chief, General Jean Kahwaji. “The army responded to an armed group that intentionally and purposefully attacked it.”
     
    Retired Army general Jaber notes that there have not been any desertions from the Army recently and says this is evidence that it is not siding with one religious group or the other.
     
    At the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, the Army disintegrated as soldiers deserted to join militias of their respective religious communities.
     
    But even though the Army has remained intact so far, Jaber concedes that if full-scale sectarian fighting does erupt again in Lebanon, the Army could once again face wide-spread desertions and fall apart.

    You May Like

    Top US General: Turkish Media Report ‘Absurd'

    General Dunford rejects ‘irresponsible' claims of coup involvement by former four-star Army General Campbell, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring earlier this year

    Video Saving Ethiopian Children Thought to Be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at efforts of one African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children

    Protests Over Western Troops Threaten Libyan 'Unity' Government

    Fears mount that Islamist foes of ‘unity' government plan to declare a revolutionaries' council in Tripoli

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora