Michael Young/Politically, the Army gains on Hezbollah


Politically, the Army gains on Hezbollah
Michael Young/The Daily Star
Dec. 04, 2014

The killing of six soldiers near Ras Baalbek Tuesday concealed a broader political message, one with significant implications for Hezbollah: The primary defender of domestic peace and cross-border threats is the Lebanese Army. For a long time Hezbollah sought to undermine that belief.

The party’s calculation was a simple one. If the Army was regarded as a credible protector of Lebanese stability and sovereignty, it would become more difficult for Hezbollah to justify retaining a weapons arsenal independent from the state.

Yet in the past year the situation has changed somewhat, caused by political circumstances. When car bombs began going off in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah set up roadblocks to inspect all vehicles. The long waiting times provoked growing resentment from inhabitants and businesses that were losing customers from outside the area. At the same time the party was increasingly sensitive to accusations that it was engaging in autonomous security. To deflect blame from itself, Hezbollah allowed the Army to man the roadblocks, just as it had earlier granted the Internal Security Forces more latitude to fight rising crime rates in the suburbs.

None of these moves was seen by Hezbollah as more than a convenient way to reduce resentment. Neither the Army nor the security forces seriously damaged Hezbollah’s political or military self-rule in districts the party controls.

But can the same thing be said of the Army’s behavior along the border with Syria? Hezbollah is stuck in the Syrian quagmire, with no signs that it is winning the battle. Hundreds of party members have been killed in the past year and more, according to most reports, and Hezbollah now faces an Islamist enemy as determined to prevail as it is, if not more so.

In order to cut off supply lines between Lebanon and Syria, and in that way strangle Bashar Assad’s enemies in the Qalamoun district, Hezbollah has pushed the Lebanese Army to engage in border interdiction. Ironically, this had always been a demand of Hezbollah’s political rivals, until the party saw the advantages. The United Kingdom entered the breach and has sponsored the building of a network of border towers from Akkar down to the northern Bekaa Valley, which eventually will reach Masnaa on the Beirut-Damascus highway.

No one doubts that Hezbollah is still able to transfer weapons through the northern Bekaa border, and that the Army will avoid confronting the party on such transfers. And it would be naive to assume that Hezbollah permitted the Army’s deployment along the border as part of anything but a scheme to ultimately defeat Syrian opposition forces in Qalamoun.

However, there are three aspects of this worth examining more closely. First, military considerations aside, from a political perspective most Lebanese can clearly see that it is the Army, not Hezbollah, that holds the primary line of defense along the border. When we recall that years ago then -President Emile Lahoud drew on his deep reservoir of strategic wisdom to explain why it was best for the Lebanese Army to position itself away from the border with Israel, it is clear that now the military is taken more seriously.

Secondly, the Army’s reinforcement of the border is increasingly being interpreted as evidence of Hezbollah’s doubts about the Syrian war. The assumption is that the party, realizing that the Assad regime is at serious risk of collapsing, is going along with a plan that would isolate Lebanon from the chaos in Syria if that happened. In that way, border interdiction by the Army becomes necessary from a national-security perspective.

If this interpretation is correct, it would show not only that Hezbollah is realistic about the limits of its role in Syria, but also about the limits of its ability to defend Lebanon. This would be a powerful, if implicit, concession by the party, one certain to prompt new demands that Hezbollah surrender its arms.

Third, as most Lebanese have seen in recent months, the only institution capable of maintaining civil peace is the Army. This was especially true during the recent attack against militant Islamists in Tripoli, just as it has been true on the countless occasions the military has intervened to prevent neighborhood clashes from turning into larger sectarian battles.

Critics will respond that all too often the Army has served Hezbollah’s agenda. Perhaps, but when Hezbollah’s agenda, shifting to accommodate the challenges the party’s errors have placed in its path, favors measures that, unintentionally, strengthen the state’s authority as the ultimate guarantor of civil peace and national security, that is a good thing. And as the Army gains in credibility and purpose, it will be increasingly less disposed to march to Hezbollah’s drumbeat, even if it has no intention of entering into a confrontation with the party.

Perhaps that’s why Hezbollah is so reluctant to bring in a new president today. It senses that the mood is changing in Lebanon and that the Army’s improved standing could push a president to go further than did Michel Sleiman in criticism of the party’s weapons. That anxiety was not present last year when Hezbollah felt it was winning in Syria, and hoped to use a victory there to impose a favored candidate on the Lebanese.

All this may represent measured gains against Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm voluntarily. But they are gains nonetheless. Hezbollah is losing men to defend the Assad regime, the Army to defend Lebanese territory. That conclusion may best illustrate where the Lebanese presently stand on the party.
**Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.