Lebanon Army is caught in the middle


On a long street that serves as an often-volatile border between the two most restive neighborhoods in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, Lebanese Army armored personnel carriers with mounted .50-caliber machine guns are stationed at every corner. Troops with M-16 assault rifles linger nearby, smoking cigarettes in the shade of buildings long scarred by bullets and explosions.

The Lebanese Army’s large deployment along the aptly named Syria Street is seemingly the only thing keeping anti-Assad Sunni and pro-Assad Alawite militias in the two rival neighborhoods from resuming a two-day gun battle they fought over the weekend.

Militias of the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawite Jebel Mohsen neighborhoods have regularly fought each other since the end of the civil war. Politically, the Alawites here have long been close to the Assad regime, whose leadership belongs to the same Shiite offshoot sect of Islam. Many among Tripoli’s large Sunni population harbored a strong resentment toward the Syrian government after Syrian troops occupied parts of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005.

And Syria’s downward spiral toward civil war is weighing heavily on Lebanon — particularly in Tripoli and the rest of the north of the country. As events next door escalate, tensions in Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh have flared, with residents increasingly seeing themselves as a part of Syria’s conflict.

Bab al-Tabbaneh today could be mistaken for a Free Syrian Army enclave across the border: Scrawled graffiti call for the downfall of the Assad regime, the green, white and black flag of the Syrian opposition hangs on walls and bullet casings litter the street.

From the steep hillside of Jebel Mohsen a six-story tall portrait of Rifaat Eid, head of the main political faction of Lebanon’s Alawite minority, and posters of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria stare back.

“We know whenever things in Homs will be good for the Syrian Army, they will be bad here,” said Mr. Eid, head of the Arab Democratic Party. Mr. Eid argued that Sunni militias instigated the most recent fighting and attacked his neighborhood as revenge for the Syrian government’s heavy-handed assault on the opposition stronghold of Homs that began this month.

Bab al-Tabbaneh residents claimed that Lebanese Army troops fired into their neighborhood from positions in Jebel Mohsen. But “this battle was not between us and the army, it was between us and Jebel Mohsen,” said Assad al-Hayek, a Bab al-Tabbaneh resident who saw his home damaged by the fighting. He added that he did not believe the army was “shooting to kill.”

The latest round of fighting began on Friday afternoon, hours after Salafist parties led a protest against the Assad regime through Tripoli’s main squares. As the sound of gunfire filled the air, businesses at the rear of Bab al-Tabbaneh quickly shuttered. Civilians shouted warnings of snipers and sprinted across soon-deserted streets for cover. For the next 24 hours, militias exchanged gunfire and grenades.

An army-brokered cease-fire halted the fighting on Saturday afternoon and Lebanese troops moved into sensitive areas. By the time the shooting stopped, three people were dead and more than 20 wounded. Each side blamed the other for starting the battle.

The Lebanese Army increasingly is finding itself caught in the middle as the Syria conflict continues to raise tensions in Lebanon.

After Syrian border incursions, kidnappings of Syrian dissidents who fled to Lebanon and instances of Syrian troops firing into Lebanon, the opposition March 14 coalition has called for the army to be deployed along the country’s borders. They would like the army to protect against any Syrian military aggression and defend the more than 6,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon.

The Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc also wants the army on the border, but for much different reasons. Members of the largely pro-Syria coalition charge that the border areas are used as safe havens by the Free Syrian Army and as transit points for smuggling weapons to rebels.

Lately, March 14 has been accusing March 8 of using the Lebanese Army for its own — and Syria’s — benefit.

The Lebanese Army is one of the few state institutions respected in a country where political, ethnic and religious identities often supersede a national one. “The army really reflects the society, this mosaic,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese Army general.

But more often than not, the Lebanese Army opts to stay out of conflicts, sitting on the sidelines until the shooting stops. Its chronic weakness and its cross-sectarian makeup also mean that its interference could exacerbate already dangerous situations rather than calm them.

The army “is made up of various sectarian groups and its political commanders are divided along different political lines of loyalties,” said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at Beirut’s Lebanese American University. “So there isn’t much to expect from what the Lebanese Army can do in terms of playing a decisive military role.”

For the army to take action, there usually has to be political consensus. The last major operation that the Lebanese Army carried out was the 2007 routing of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Fatah al-Islam group in Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli.

The clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jebel Mohsen were the kind of conflict that the Lebanese Army often tries to ignore. Yet this time, it was quick to deploy, warning that it would aggressively go after the fighters, regardless of which party they belonged to. On Saturday, local media reported that the army had killed a sniper in Bab al-Tabbaneh and arrested several people.

The fragile situations both in Tripoli and along the border represent a challenge for the army. Taking decisive and effective action at a time when accusations about the army’s loyalty abound could prove to be a dangerous move. Then again, allowing such situations to go unchecked could drag Lebanon into an even deeper, unwanted conflict.

According to Mr. Eid, the army intervened in the weekend clashes largely to protect his Alawite community in Jebel Mohsen, targeting only armed elements in Bab al-Tabbaneh. “If anything happens to Jebel Mohsen, the army — the Lebanese Army — will fight,” he said.

Mr. Eid added that the recent deployment to the border areas was in response to Syria’s request for the country to confront rumored Free Syrian Army activity and smuggling.

In Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, parties involved in the fighting seem equally unperturbed by the current deployment of the Lebanese Army.

“The only clearly significant role the Lebanese Army plays in all these disputed issues is a primarily symbolic role and it gives a sense of comfort to the parties in dispute,” said Mr. Salamey.

Despite the military’s assertions that it would go after armed groups of any stripe and the arrests made during the clashes, it remains to be seen how realistic such action is.

On Sunday on Syria Street, a car slowly cruised past a Lebanese Army armored personnel carrier. Inside, bearded Sunni gunmen cradled assault rifles. The troops saw them, but did nothing.