Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Jeffrey Stinson, "Lebanese forces may play bigger role in war," USA Today, August 1, 2006.

BEIRUT — Lebanese army soldiers in their camouflage fatigues and red berets can be seen everywhere here — at checkpoints, patrolling neighborhoods and protecting major hotels.

One place they aren't out in force, though, is in southern Lebanon. During three weeks of conflict between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli forces, the Lebanese armed forces have been on the sidelines.

Now, however, there is talk of deploying Lebanon's more than 70,000 soldiers in the south to provide a security presence that represents the government, not the Hezbollah guerrillas who are waging their own war against Israel.

The army is a key component of what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls "a lasting settlement" along the Lebanese-Israeli border and Lebanese Prime Minister Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's plan to maintain political stability.

Under discussion: Having the Lebanese army work with an international military force to police any cease-fire, moving Hezbollah fighters away from the border, disarming the Shiite militia and possibly integrating its fighters into the Lebanese armed forces.

That would be a dramatic shift for a weak military that for the past decade has operated as an internal security force, says Mustafa Alani, director of national security for the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.

The question is whether Lebanon's forces, which are poorly equipped and no combat experience, are ready for any of the proposed missions. "The Lebanese army cannot stand up against Hezbollah and is not able to stand up to Israel," Alani says.

No army intervention so far

Until April 2005, Syria controlled its smaller neighbor. Under international pressure, Syria withdrew most of the forces it deployed to Lebanon in 1975 to quell a civil war.

Hezbollah militants, meanwhile, had free rein in the south. The Shiite militia, which the U.S. administration considers a terrorist group, regularly battled Israeli forces until Israel withdrew after 14 years from a self-declared security zone.

When Hezbollah sparked the current crisis July 12 by crossing into Israel, killing eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two others, no Lebanese army force was on hand. Nor have any government brigades been dispatched there despite pleas from some Lebanese for the army to fight Israel.

"The Lebanese army must help Hezbollah in this war," says university student Mohammad Sbeiti, 23, a Shiite Muslim from the southern village of Kafra. "Hezbollah and the Lebanese army must be like one person."

Many questions to be answered

Despite these calls, the future role of the Lebanese armed forces is in question:

• If the army, which is the major part of Lebanon's military, is deployed to work with an international force, would its role be only to restrain Hezbollah, which could test its loyalties?

The army, like Lebanese society, is split along religious and ethnic lines, says former Lebanese army general Elias Hanna. Like the government, the officer corps is predominantly Christian and Sunni Muslim, he says. Its rank and file is about 70% Shiite, as is Hezbollah.

The army's role would have to be well defined and reflect political consensus, he says. "You cannot fight Hezbollah," Hanna says, without disastrous military, social and political results for Lebanon.

• Will the West invest in transforming an ineffective army into a national defense force?

Despite its numbers, the Lebanese army is "weak," Alani says. The army's current role was dictated by Syria. The army's budget also has been starved by Lebanon's economy, which was crippled by the 1975-91 civil war, Alani says. It has old equipment and no working air force or navy. He says while it far outnumbers Hezbollah's estimated 5,000 fighters, it could not contend with the battle-hardened militia.

Former army officers, such as Hanna, say that even with money and equipment from the West, it will take the army three to five years to become an independent self-defense force.

• Will Hezbollah disarm, defer to a national defense force and become part of it?

Hezbollah leaders last week said that if an immediate cease-fire was called and other conditions met, they would negotiate disarming as part of an overall national defense plan. Energy Minister Mohammed Fneish, one of two Hezbollah ministers in the Cabinet, says Hezbollah discussed possible integration with the government earlier this year.

The army successfully absorbed other militias at the end of the civil war. That makes some people optimistic that Hezbollah could be integrated. "It's possible," says Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. He warns, however, that there would be obstacles.

Hezbollah fighters are inspired by Islam and the army is secular, he says. They would have to be placed in a separate brigade, similar to other army brigades composed along ethnic lines.

Ultimately, however, the question hinges on whether Hezbollah is dedicated to Lebanon or its own goals and those of its chief sponsor, Iran. "Is it loyal to Hezbollah's leaders or the army?" Alani asks.

[There are high-level journalists, analysts, and policy makers waiting for a Lebanese backlash against Hezbollah. Some of them are still waiting for the dance to start in the streets of Baghdad. Atop this foundation of quicksand, the Judith Millers and Richard Perles of this new conflict are erecting the now familiar delusion that with a little training the local army will forget that the loathsome occupiers have destroyed their cities, their neighborhoods, their families and friends, the achievements of their generations. -jlt]
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