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

Republican Majority in Congress Off to Rough Start

Standoff over Homeland Security funding exposes philosophical, tactical problems within party More

Pakistan Blocks Baloch Activist from US Trip

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan slams Islamabad officials for stopping people from leaving country to attend human rights conference More

Video Muslims Long Thrived in North Carolina Before Students Killed

Idyll shattered February 10, when three Muslim university students living in Chapel Hill were gunned down by a neighbor More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Studentsi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
March 05, 2015 9:04 PM
The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Students

The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Fuel Shortages in Nigeria Threaten Election Campaigns

Nigeria is suffering a gas shortage as the falling oil price has affected the country’s ability to import and distribute refined fuels. Coming just weeks before scheduled March 28 elections, the shortage could have a big impact on the campaign, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA.
Video

Video Report: Human Rights in Annexed Crimea Deteriorating

A new report by Freedom House and the Atlantic Council of the United States says the human rights situation in Crimea has deteriorated since the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March of last year. The report says the new authorities in Crimea are discriminating against minorities, suppressing freedom of expression, and forcing residents to assume Russian citizenship or leave. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video 50 Years Later African-Americans See New Voting Rights Battles Ahead

Thousands of people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights march on March 7th in Selma, Alabama. In 1965, dozens of people were seriously injured during the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” after police attacked African-American demonstrators demanding voting rights. VOA’s Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights pioneers who are still fighting for voting rights in Alabama more than 50 years later.
Video

Video Craft Brewers Taking Hold in US Beer Market

Since the 1950’s, the U.S. beer industry has been dominated by a handful of huge breweries. But in recent years, the rapid rise of small craft breweries has changed the American market and, arguably, the way people drink beer. VOA’s Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Volunteer Gauge-Watchers Help Fine-Tune Weather Science

An observation system called CoCoRaHS is working to improve weather science, thanks to thousands of volunteers across the country who measure precipitation in their own backyards, then share their data through the Internet. VOA's Shelley Schlender reports.
Video

Video NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Muslims Radicalized Online

Young Muslims are being radicalized ‘in their bedrooms’ through direct contact with Islamic State or ISIL fighters via the Internet, according to terror experts. There are growing concerns that authorities and Internet providers are not doing enough to counter online extremism - which analysts say is spread by a prolific network of online supporters around the world. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More