Lebanese army dispels rumors of sectarian strife

New statement issued in preparation of political upheaval.

lebanese army 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
lebanese army 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
The Lebanese Army has moved to dismiss rumors that its ranks could be ripped apart by sectarian strife over heightened political polarization in the mixed Christian/Muslim country.
In a bulletin entitled "There is no Cause for Civil Strife," issued by the Guidance Directorate of the Lebanese Army Forces (LAF), soldiers were urged to beware of divisive statements.
"Statements encouraging divisiveness pose a real threat to the country," the publication read.  "The army, which was able to safeguard the unity of the nation during the height of political divisions over the past years, is as cohesive as ever before. This is due to the soldiers' alertness and awareness of their role."
The bulletin also moved to quell any talk of fractures within its ranks, saying “there is no indication at this time that regional conflicts will adversely affect the internal arena."
The bulletin came following the massive show of force by Hizbullah during parades held for visiting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It also was timed to head off the upcoming decision by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon charged with investigating the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Reports have indicated that Hizbullah activists may have been behind the killing.
Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general, said that sectarian tensions were not new to the Lebanese army.
"The Lebanese army represents the sectarian disparity in Lebanon," he told The Media Line. "The army maintains a delicate balance of power between the different denominations. You cannot escape this fault line."
"Security in Lebanon is political," Hanna said. "In order to maintain security here, you need a political consensus."
In recent years, Hanna added, the Lebanese army has gradually become less Christian and more Muslim, with higher representation for both Sunni and Shiite populations.
"In his statement, the army commander is trying to reassure the public that sectarian strife will not affect the army," he said.
The Lebanese army consists of 56,000 active personnel, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Yet its outdated equipment has rendered it virtually powerless in confronting regional military challenges.    
Dr. Hilal Khashan, a political scientist from the American University of Beirut, said that the Lebanese Army operates as an independent force within the country, displaying more loyalty to the leaders of Lebanon's religious factions than to the country's political leadership.
"Some 60 percent of the army's rank and file is Shiite, and most of the military commanders are either Shiites or Maronite Christians loyal to General Michel Aoun, who is an ally of Hizbullah," Khashan added.    
"The military establishment became a canton of its own, which doesn't answer to anyone," he told The Media Line. "The army does not listen to Prime Minister Hariri or to President Suleiman. In various occasions in the past, the army's commander-in-chief disobeyed the Prime Minister."
However, Khashan doubted the possibility of civil strife either within the ranks of the military or in Lebanon at large.
"Neither Iran nor Hizbullah is interested in civil strife in Lebanon," he said. "Iran has prepared Hizbullah for regional confrontation, and it is not interested in squandering Hizbullah's capabilities on street fighting in Beirut."
The army's statement is a reflection of Lebanese commander-in-chief Jean Qahwaji's political aspirations, as well as an attempt to deflect internal criticism of the military, Khashan added.
"Since Lebanese independence three presidents came from the ranks of the army," he said. "This statement is politically meaningful for Qahwaji but military meaningless, since the military can never fight an internal battle against any of Lebanon's denominations."
"The army has proven to be incompetent and lacking in will and motivation to maintain law and order in the country," Khashan said.
Last August, a border skirmish took place between the Lebanese army and Israeli soldiers. A Lebanese sniper shot dead an Israeli lieutenant colonel while the latter was directing a tree clearing operation near the border fence. Israel retaliated by killing two Lebanese soldiers and a local journalist.
In a recent briefing, a senior Israeli officer confirmed to The Media Line that Israel had warned the Lebanese after the incident that it could have wiped out the Lebanese Army “in a matter of hours.”
The border clash prompted the United States Congress to withhold $100 million in military aid to the Lebanese Army, fearing it would be used to arm Hizbullah. The United States has provided Lebanon with over $700 million in aid since the 2006 war with Israel to help rebuild the country's military capabilities.