BEIRUT: As the Lebanese Army celebrates its 69th anniversary as a fighting force, former officers and experts warned that the military faces a series of serious challenges that include containing the fallout from the crisis in Syria, maintaining the tranquility of its southern border and preserving peace in the nation’s troubled north.
In the midst of all this, the Army must maintain its neutrality and fight off the rising tide of extremism, which can threaten the cohesion of its soldiers.
“The greatest challenge is terrorism,” said Nizar Abdel-Qader, a former Army general.
Abdel-Qader said that while worries about extremists have long been a fixture facing the Army, the problem is increasing with the ongoing crises in Iraq and Syria. He said that while Lebanese society generally rejects extremism, there still existed pockets in the country that harbor such groups.
But he said the Army must be vigilant against another threat – that Syrian rebel groups or the Syrian regime might begin recruiting refugees based in Lebanon and create armed cells to carry out attacks, given the Syrian regime’s history in orchestrating attacks in Lebanon.
“It’s a sensitive issue, but it’s dangerous,” he said.
With Iraq, Abdel-Qader said the repercussions of the possible division of the country and the ongoing Sunni-Shiite strife in the region would likely extend to the allies of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region, including in Lebanon, a process that already began with the suicide bombings in areas associated with Hezbollah and which were linked to the party’s intervention in Syria.
Hezbollah is reportedly preparing a major offensive against Syrian rebels in the mountainous areas straddling the Lebanon-Syria northeastern border. The party’s involvement in the Syrian war alongside President Bashar Assad has prompted fundamentalist groups inspired by Al-Qaeda to carry out bombings and attacks inside Lebanon, including targeting Army checkpoints.
A series of victories by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime in Syria’s Qalamoun region in spring has driven Syrian rebels to areas near the Syria- Lebanon border. Elias Farhat, a retired Army general, estimates the number of armed rebels there, who threaten Lebanese border villages, at about 3,000.
He said such rebels could model their activities on those of Boko Haram in Nigeria, which relies on kidnappings and attacks from rural areas. The numbers of Lebanese soldiers watching over the border are not enough, he said.
But the crackdown on predominantly Sunni fighters and fundamentalists in the northeast and in Tripoli has fueled accusations by some in the Sunni community who argue that the Army is no longer neutral.
They argue that the Army has cracked down on Sunnis sympathizing with Syrian rebels but ignored Hezbollah’s fighters streaming across the border to come to Assad’s aid.
The accusations are particularly dangerous since Sunni soldiers make up a disproportionately high percentage of the Army’s core. The fugitive preacher, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, has often questioned the religious permissibility of Sunnis continuing to serve in the Army.
Last week, a video purportedly showing an Army soldier announcing his joining of the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, emerged and was downplayed by the Army.
In addition, the Army faces a challenge in maintaining stability in Tripoli. Farhat said the reemergence of fundamentalists in the second-largest city in Lebanon, angered by the recent arrest of Sheikh Hussam Sabbagh, a militia leader linked to Al-Qaeda, is a “huge challenge” for Tripoli, where they are competing with established political factions like the Future Movement.
But ultimately, Farhat said he does not fear widespread defections or majority opposition to the Army, since the extremists themselves are not popular and do not have a genuine base of support.
However, while the video was an isolated case, it should give pause, said Sami Nader, the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.
“Any disease that Lebanese society is suffering from, if the political establishment can’t remedy it, will manifest itself in the Army,” he said.
Nader said the Army ought to be cautious and take into consideration the frustrations in local communities and maintain equality in the way it treats all factions in order to safeguard cohesion. The neutrality of the Army has been put into question by a “considerable chunk of the Lebanese population,” he said, and regardless of the validity of the charges, that cannot be ignored.
But Nader also said the Army has a role to play in the south, where it must ensure compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon.
The security of the southern border is at a greater risk amid the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza, with the risk that deliberate rocket attacks or attacks by groups who wish to embroil Lebanon in a battle with Israel could take place, he said.
Farhat, the retired Army general, said the south presents a challenge as well because of manpower shortages. He said that while Resolution 1701 envisions 15,000 UNIFIL troops in the area that number has fallen to about 7,000 as different contingents withdrew their troops amid security fears.
Abdel-Qader said the Army will need to maintain robust conventional and counter-terrorism capabilities, given that it has to tackle various internal security threats in addition to its deployment along the porous border with Syria, its presence in south Lebanon alongside UNIFIL forces and its presence in large numbers in Tripoli and the north to implement security plans there.
Abdel-Qader estimated that another 20,000 recruits must be added to the ranks of the Army to fulfill such a broad mandate. “The Army will need more trained manpower for these missions,” he said.