Beirut: The Lebanese army has long been viewed as the state’s sole standing legitimate institution, but spillover violence from Syria has compromised the integrity of the Lebanese forces at a critical time in Lebanon’s history where a government led by a coaltion of Hezbollah and its allies has been put in an awkward situation as its ally, the regime of Bashar Al Assad, is quickly losing control of Syria.
For nearly two years, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fled across the northern borders and settled in the Akkar region, often with relatives. Notorious clashes in Tripoli rekindled dormant animosities between Sunni and Shiite neighbourhoods. Accusations that arms were smuggled from Lebanon into Syria mobilised Syrian Arab Army troops to open fire on Lebanese citizens, cross the frontiers at will, kidnap or kill with impunity, all of which raised tensions further.
Despite the need for a presence on the border with Syria, Lebanese troops flexed their muscle in Tripoli, and on May 20 killed two prominent Sunni clerics, Ahmad Abdul Wahid and Mohammad Mirhib. Officially, the Lebanese forces said the deaths were a mistake after the car driving the two men failed to stop at a checkpoint. But the execution-style deaths provoked Sunni protesters who have been long-time critics of the regime of Bashar Al Assad and its interference in Lebanese politics — specifically with backing up Hezbollah and its allies. The Lebanese forces saw their movement in the country severely limited by the March 8 dominated government. The March 14 opposition demanded the army deploy on the borders and defend Lebanese sovereignty after several instances of Syrian troops firing at people from across the border. However the government of Prime Minister Najeeb Miqati chose instead a policy of disassociation. In 2007, the Lebanese forces were glorified by the public for their heroic fight against Fatah Al Islam, an offshoot of Al Qaida who took over the Palestinian Nahr Al Bared refugee camp.
At the time, and following a post-robbery incident, extremists slaughtered 27 soldiers in their sleep, seized various armoured personnel carriers and attacked additional posts. The LAF responded with force, killing 226 members of Fatah Al Islam and capturing about 220. At the end of a nearly four-month-long war, an additional 141 LAF soldiers died, while 66 civilians perished as well.
Through the bloody ordeal, the vast majority of Lebanese applauded the LAF. A few weeks ago, Judge Ghassan Uwaydat ordered the release of 126 prisoners, recommended the death penalty for 88 people charged with involvement in the clashes, and issued arrest warrants for 222 suspects still at large, although few believed that justice would be carried out. Simply stated, and because the vast majority of the condemned men were Sunnis, any decisions to proceed with legal proceedings was likely to add fuel to the fire.
Speaking at the August 1 LAF ceremony, President Michel Sulaiman attempted to regain his lost influence, and doused the boiling sectarian cauldron. He called on the judiciary to stand with the LAF, and insisted that the military espoused a culture that aimed to protect all of Lebanon. Remarkably, the head of state pleaded for an end to illegal weapons — “no random arms” in his carefully chosen words — and wished politicians would agree on a national defence strategy. While laudable, these goals have fallen hostage to the war in Syria as well as internal Lebanese sectarian tensions. Contentions for power between the Hezbollah dominated March-8 government and the March-14 opposition have essentially weakened the army.