BEIRUT: Defense Minister Samir Moqbel will postpone the retirement of Army Chief of Staff Maj. Walid Salman next week, political sources said Thursday, despite fierce opposition from Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun.
Speaking to The Daily Star, sources said the move would trigger street protests by the FPM, who could also organize permanent sit-ins near the Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut. According to sources, FPM ally Hezbollah will not take part in the protests, but has given the action its blessing.
A senior Army official told The Daily Star that he also believed that senior military posts, including that of Army commander, would not be allowed to fall vacant. “Defense Minister Samir Moqbel said there will be no vacancies,” said the source, who requested anonymity.
Moqbel argues that, in line with the powers of his office, he can postpone the retirement of security officials if the government fails to appoint successors.
A series of senior Army officers are scheduled to retire in the coming months. Salman retires on Sept. 7. On Sept. 20, Brig. Edmond Fadel, director general of Army Intelligence, is due to retire, followed by Maj. Mohammad Kheir, secretary-general of the Higher Defense Council, on Sept. 21, and Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi on Sept. 22.
Finally, Brig. Shamel Roukoz, head of the Army Commando Unit, is set to retire on Oct. 15.
The government is divided on how to deal with the security appointments. Speaker Nabih Berri and head of the Marada Movement Sleiman Frangieh both support postponing the retirements of the incumbent officers if the Cabinet fails to agree on successors.
The Future Movement and the Kataeb Party argue that an Army commander should not be appointed before the election of a new president, as he should have a say in the issue.
The four groups agree that none of the senior military posts should fall vacant at a time when the country faces a major security threat from terrorist groups.
Backed by Hezbollah, the FPM insists that the government must make the security appointments, arguing that the defense minister’s postponement of their retirement is a violation of the law.
Aoun is lobbying for his son-in-law, Brig. Roukoz, to be appointed Army commander.
The retirement of Kahwagi, Salman and Kheir, without the appointment of successors, would effectively result in the collapse of the Military Council.
The six-member body is comprised of the Army commander, chief of staff, secretary of the Higher Defense Council, general director of administration, general inspector and another high-ranking officer.
The last three posts, reserved for a Shiite, Greek Orthodox and Catholic, have been vacant for the past two years, which has stripped the council of its mandated five-member quorum.
With the body unable to meet, then-caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati “exceptionally approved” a deal in May 2013 for the remaining members – Kahwagi, Salman, and Kheir – to manage its affairs alone.
The council approves the specifications of supplies, weapons, equipment, ammunition, military hardware and vehicles proposed by the Army commander, among other tasks. Its work is badly needed at present as the Army battles militants from ISIS and the Nusra Front on the northeastern border and cracks down on terror cells inside the country. The Army is also in the process of receiving a series of major weapons deliveries to improve its capabilities.
Facing a similar predicament, in July 2013 then-caretaker Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn postponed the retirements of Kahwagi and Salman for two years.
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general, said that appointing a new commander and filling other key security posts was the best solution. “I can’t understand why the government is deadlocked over security appointments,” he told The Daily Star. “Is the government handicapped? If the Cabinet does not want Shamel Roukoz to be the new Army commander, then let them vote for one of [the other] names,” Jaber said.
The government selects a new Army commander from three names proposed by the defense minister.
Responding to those who maintain that the president should have a say in the appointment of the Army commander, Jaber said that once a president is elected, another commander could be appointed.
Jaber said another option could be the appointment of a commander who’s already 57 or 58 years old. The Army commander, who carries the rank of a general, retires at the age of 60. The new president, who serves a six-year term, would then have a say in the appointment of his successor, Jaber said.
He claimed that extending the retirement age of the chief of staff and commander a second time would be harmful to the Army. The posts are reserved for a Druze and Maronite respectively.
“It blocks the promotion of officers,” Jaber said. “In this case, a [younger] Druze officer cannot be appointed chief of staff, or a Maronite officer Army commander.”