Army “under tremendous pressure” but still united

The army has remained neutral throughout Lebanon’s 18-month crisis, but pledged to use force to keep the peace after six days of clashes left 81 people dead. (Adam Pletts/IRIN)

BEIRUT, 13 May (IRIN) - The army’s pledge to use force if necessary to impose law and order puts the only fully functioning national institution into the centre of Lebanon’s violent crisis. But although strained, analysts say the military remains united.

“There is no civil authority in the country now, so the army is under tremendous pressure,” said Timor Goksell, a security expert and former spokesman of UN peacekeeping forces who coordinate with the military in south Lebanon.

“If they had used their weapons during the clashes, tomorrow there would be no army and no country.”

The army had previously not intervened in six days of violent clashes — between the Hizballah-led opposition and Sunni and Druze government allies — that killed at least 81 people and wounded 250, ignoring demands from Prime Minister Fouad Siniora for troops to force gunmen off the streets.

But Goksell said the army’s pledge as of the morning of 13 May to “halt violations … in accordance with the law, even if that leads to the use of force” represented a more assertive stance.

“The army has done a good job and they continue to enjoy credibility,” he said.

The army stepped up patrols on 13 May, deploying heavily across Beirut and restoring calm to the northern port city of Tripoli after overnight clashes between Sunni loyalists and Allawite fighters allied to Hizballah.

During last week’s take-over of Sunni strongholds in west Beirut by Hizballah and its allies and the subsequent fierce weekend clashes with pro-government Druze, the army has been deploying in the areas captured by the opposition.

Army “cleaning up after Hizballah”

“The army has been reduced to the role of cleaning up after Hizballah, which is not very dignified for a national army,” said Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut.

Iranian-backed Hizballah’s armed takeover of areas of Lebanon held by the western-backed government has dramatically shifted the balance of power and sent shock waves through the Sunni-majority Arab world, as well as the US and Europe.

“Of course, for Iran to back the coup that happened in Lebanon and support it will have an impact on its relations with all Arab countries,” Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said 13 May.

US stance

Ahead of his arrival in Tel Aviv on 14 May to bolster failing US-led peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, US President Bush condemned Hizballah’s armed take-over in Lebanon, calling Iran the “single biggest threat” to peace in the region.

“Their funding of Hizballah — look what’s happening in Lebanon now, a young democracy trying to survive,” Bush told Israel’s Channel 10. The president is due to meet Prime Minister Siniora in Egypt on 18 May.

A US warship, the USS Cole, which was deployed off Lebanon in February in what US officials said was “a show of support for regional stability,” crossed Egypt’s Suez Canal on 11 May on its way to the Mediterranean, according to an official with the canal authority.

Hizballah compromised?

In a press conference on 12 May, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s political adviser Hussein Khalil tried to play down fears of sectarian strife in Lebanon, casting Hizballah’s actions as a defense against a US attempt to disarm the group.

“We agree with Siniora that the core problem between us and them is Hizballah’s weapons,” said Khalil. “They have tried to realize an old American dream to turn Lebanon into a country deprived of resistance.”

Despite its combative stance, some analysts noted that, as yet, Hizballah had failed to translate its significant military gains into major political ones, and that by using their arms in the country — an action they had previously forsworn — the group had tarnished its image as a Lebanese national fighting force aimed at Israel.

“Hizballah need to restore their image, to dispel the notion they have become a local militia,” said Ousama Safa, director of Beirut’s Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. “We could see a strong attack on Israel in revenge for the killing of Mughniyeh.”

Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hizballah commander, was assassinated in a car bombing in Damascus in February, prompting Nasrallah to pledge bloody retaliation against Israel.

“This May war will have more far-reaching consequences than the July War [of 2006],” said Hezbollah expert Amal Saad Ghorayeb. “Hezbollah knew it was a trap, but by using their weapons they are running out of cards to play. Both sides are stuck between a rock and hard place.”

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