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Distinction between the Lebanese Army and Hizbullah Fading

Written by Justin Salhani for the Media Line –

[Beirut] — Murky links between the upper echelons of Lebanese Army Intelligence and the twin incarnations of Hizbullah — a political persona and a fighting force — have drawn criticism from sectors of Lebanon’s political and civilian class.

The two bodies have long coordinated their operations, but purported sympathies between the two parties, shakeups in the army’s personnel after the civil war’s conclusion in 1990, and recent history muddies the clarity of this relationship.

To better understand this relationship it’s important to define the current political and military dynamic in Lebanon. While there have been increasing attempts to better equip and train the army with major funding from the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, as well as smaller sums from other nations, Hizbullah still maintains its status as the country’s most formidable fighting force.

The United States lists Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. Europe largely differentiates between Hizbullah’s so-called “military wing” and the political side of the organization, although the group itself maintains there is no distinction. In the past, the US worried that arms and military material it provided to the Lebanese army would filter through to Hizbullah, that concern did not prevent a shipment of hellfire missiles and other military aid that was provided in September of last year.

“There is coordination between Hizbullah – represented by [security apparatus chief] Wafiq Safa – and the Lebanese army’s intelligence directors,” said retired Brigadier General Elias Farhat, a Lebanese political and military analyst.

Leaders of the two forces often meet and trade intelligence for the sake of Lebanon’s national security. But the intricacy of this relationship is largely unknown, leaving room for speculation and conspiracy theories about the influence Hizbullah exerts over the army.

“The relationship between the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] and Hizbullah, Lebanon’s most powerful armed force, is transient and not clearly defined,” Shane Farrell, a Dubai-based security analyst told The Media Line. “Although the LAF’s mandate extends to the whole of Lebanon, there is a tacit agreement that the LAF does not interfere in key Hizbullah strongholds, which are mainly located in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the Beirut suburbs.”

While the LAF has deployed a number of security checkpoints in the southern suburbs and the Bekaa in recent months, it is largely believed that it is with Hizbullah’s approval. In the past, Hizbullah largely patrolled these areas but the strain and increased sectarian tension caused by their participation in the Syrian civil war has led to this change.

But the seeds were already sown for large portions of the community. While the Lebanese army is a unifying force that enjoys the support of most citizens, there are nevertheless members of the Sunni Muslim community that view the LAF as an extension of Hizbullah.

This sentiment has been exacerbated by the army’s participation — or lack thereof — in various battles over the past decade. The army sat out the May 7 events in 2008 where Hizbullah and their allies took over the streets of west Beirut by defeating poorly trained fighters largely aligned with the Future Movement – a largely Sunni political party.

This decision brought outrage from the Sunni community but is also one of the driving factors behind the ascension to the presidency by then-army chief Michel Sleiman.

In 2013, the battle of Abra took place near Sidon, just south of Beirut. A firebrand cleric named Ahmad Al-Assir used Sunni frustration against Hizbullah, and by extension the army, to rally his followers. The fallout from this buildup was a two-day clash between Assir’s men and the army. Rumors swirled from local and international media that Hizbullah had been involved in the army’s operation.

Another similar battle took place in Tripoli in late 2014 when an armed group sympathetic to the Al-Qa’ida-affiliated Al-Nusra Front was engaged by the army.

While many of these battles were supported by large sections of the Lebanese populace – both Sidon and Tripoli’s residents were largely pleased to be rid of the armed groups the army disposed of – there is a lack of mirroring actions in Shiite-controlled areas. Sunnis largely complain that if they enter Syria to fight against the regime and then return they will be imprisoned. On the other hand, Hizbullah fighters who fight for the regime do not face this obstacle.

“Both the LAF and Hizbullah have clashed with Sunni jihadists along the Lebanese border with Syria, leading hardline Sunnis to label the LAF an arm of Hizbullah,” said Farrell. He argues that,“This, of course, is an unfair portrayal of a government institution that is broadly representative of Lebanon’s sectarian divisions, and is highly respected by most Lebanese. In recent years, due largely to the increased threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Lebanon, Hizbullah and the LAF (as well as other state institutions) have increased the sharing of intelligence. This largely accounts for many of Lebanon’s counter-terrorism successes in the past year, which have included foiling bomb plots and the arrests of suspected suicide bombers.”

Many members of Lebanon’s Sunni community do, in fact, support the army. Large portions of the army come from predominately Sunni areas including many villages in Akkar, where it is not uncommon for each home to have a family member in the army.

It would then seem that a large portion of the grievances expressed by Hizbullah detractors come from the party’s dominant power in the country. One example of this is their influence over the – currently vacant – position of president of the republic.

In Lebanon, an unwritten agreement ensures that only a Maronite Christian may fill the role of president. The same rule applies to the Chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces. The last three presidents have also been former army heads, meaning that any person who fills this position is automatically a presidential candidate and therefore would seek to maintain Hizbullah’s approval.

There is no official record of Hizbullah’s influence over army decision making when it comes to operations. However, a lack of transparency in regard to how closely the two groups coordinate and the absence of examples of the army operating in Shiite areas leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many Lebanese wary of the relationship.

Lebanese army soldiers sit atop of an armoured carrier at the entrance of the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley

While many of these battles were supported by large sections of the Lebanese populace – both Sidon and Tripoli’s residents were largely pleased to be rid of the armed groups the army disposed of – there is a lack of mirroring actions in Shiite-controlled areas. Sunnis largely complain that if they enter Syria to fight against the regime and then return they will be imprisoned. On the other hand, Hizbullah fighters who fight for the regime do not face this obstacle.

“Both the LAF and Hizbullah have clashed with Sunni jihadists along the Lebanese border with Syria, leading hardline Sunnis to label the LAF an arm of Hizbullah,” said Farrell. He argues that,“This, of course, is an unfair portrayal of a government institution that is broadly representative of Lebanon’s sectarian divisions, and is highly respected by most Lebanese. In recent years, due largely to the increased threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Lebanon, Hizbullah and the LAF (as well as other state institutions) have increased the sharing of intelligence. This largely accounts for many of Lebanon’s counter-terrorism successes in the past year, which have included foiling bomb plots and the arrests of suspected suicide bombers.”

Many members of Lebanon’s Sunni community do, in fact, support the army. Large portions of the army come from predominately Sunni areas including many villages in Akkar, where it is not uncommon for each home to have a family member in the army.

It would then seem that a large portion of the grievances expressed by Hizbullah detractors come from the party’s dominant power in the country. One example of this is their influence over the – currently vacant – position of president of the republic.

In Lebanon, an unwritten agreement ensures that only a Maronite Christian may fill the role of president. The same rule applies to the Chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces. The last three presidents have also been former army heads, meaning that any person who fills this position is automatically a presidential candidate and therefore would seek to maintain Hizbullah’s approval.

There is no official record of Hizbullah’s influence over army decision making when it comes to operations. However, a lack of transparency in regard to how closely the two groups coordinate and the absence of examples of the army operating in Shiite areas leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many Lebanese wary of the relationship.

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