The Lebanese army and the Hizbullah question

The Lebanese army's role in Hizbullah's attack on the Hanit is not at all surprising.

flag hizbullah border298 (photo credit: AP [file])
flag hizbullah border298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Ribal Zweil, a spokesman for Lebanon's predominantly Christian National Liberal Party - which has expressed disapproval of Hizbullah's recent attacks - told The Jerusalem Post Sunday that his government "will not act against Hizbullah. We can go in and keep peace in the south with their consent, but there will be no political conflict." Zweil's statement will come as no shock to analysts, who have long held that Beirut is unwilling to stand up to Hizbullah - but it may surprise Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. On Saturday, Saniora said his government would reassert authority over all Lebanese territory, apparently alluding to deploying the Lebanese army in the country's south, which is under Hizbullah control. While Saniora's statement was almost certainly a diplomatic ploy aimed at distancing his government from Hizbullah's activities, it nonetheless raised salient questions about Lebanon's military capabilities - and its political will. While there is debate over the military's wherewithal, one thing seems clear: the chances of Beirut standing up to its thuggish stepbrothers are slim, at best. What's more, experts say, Lebanon's army - much as its government - may represent disparate and contradictory loyalties. Lebanon - which has long been in the unenviable position of chafing under Syria's thumb - clearly sweats at the thought of confronting Hizbullah, which enjoys considerable backing from Syria and Iran. Any action on Lebanon's part against Hizbullah would be a direct result of the pressure that Israel continues to apply through its military operations - and would represent an enormous departure from politics as usual. On Friday, four Israel Navy seamen were killed when the missile ship Hanit was hit by Hizbullah - which reportedly acted on information provided by the Lebanese army. With this in mind, can Lebanon's military be trusted to act as a protective force in the south? According to Ephraim Inbar, Director of Bar Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the Lebanese army's role in Hizbullah's attack on the Hanit is not at all surprising. "A large percentage of the [Lebanese] population is sympathetic to Hizbullah," he said. "The army is not a cohesive force, and there is no strong political will. It's more of a symbol of sovereignty than an actual tool." While the Lebanese military does have certain resources at its disposal - a naval fleet, for instance, and an infantry force that has been largely supplied by America in an attempt to bolster the country against Syria - it is not, according to sources, a force to be reckoned with. According to the Jaffee Center's Middle East Military Balance, there are 64,000 members of Lebanon's armed forces, which has 36 helicopters, four shoulder-launched missiles, 27 naval patrol crafts, 350 tanks, 1,380 mechanized infantry vehicles, and 335 artillery pieces. Benjamin Ryan, an American journalist living in Beirut, said he did not believe Lebanon's mechanized infantry, at least, was capable of restoring order in the south. Walking past a Lebanese military post, Ryan said, he "did a double take." "A fleet of HMMWVs [Humvees] and APCs [armored personnel carriers] stood in the parking lot. The door on one of the APCs - the big one that swings down to disgorge the troops inside - had a lot of camouflage paint chipping off. Underneath, the door itself was wood," he said. Wooden vehicles aside, "The Lebanese army does has strength," said Moshe Marzuk, senior researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center. "Its impotence isn't in its military capabilities, but in its internal politics," he said. Inbar echoed those sentiments. "This is not a question of military capability, but of political will," he said. According to Zweil - who declined to comment on whether the Lebanese army has the technical capabilities necessary to disarm Hizbullah - the question is not whether his government has the military power to confront the rogues in the south, but how the country can maintain its unity. It is exactly this political reality, say the experts, that make any chances of the Lebanese military acting against Hizbullah highly unlikely.