The battle last month in Saida in which extremist, Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir was dispatched from his mosque was a moment of triumph for the Lebanese army.
The country by and large rallied behind the army, which is regarded as the paramount symbol of national unity and a force for stability. However, no sooner had the army’s Maghawir, the Rangers Regiment, departed the battlefield in Abra on the outskirts of Saida than troops were rushing to stamp out another “fire” in the Tariq al Jedideh district of Beirut where Amal Movement partisans and Sunni gunmen briefly clashed.
Indeed, it has been a busy six months for the army, deploying to Arsal in the northern Bekaa and Tripoli in attempts to contain sporadic bouts of violence. It has also come under routine Syrian artillery fire in the northern Akkar district.
While the army has coped so far, it could face difficulties in the future because of a freeze in administrative appointments in the top military command and the likelihood that the summer months will see repeated spells of violence, especially in mixed Sunni-Shia areas. Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji reaches mandatory retirement age in September and three members of the six-man Military Council, the army’s top decision-making body, officially “retired” in May even though they continue to hold their posts for now.
The caretaker status of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government will complicate attempts to fill the potential vacuum at the head of the army. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, has called for Kahwaji’s term to be extended, a proposition that has been rejected by Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and a former army commander himself. Aoun suggested that the appointment of an army commander (a role reserved for Maronites) should be the prerogative of Christians in the government. The true reason may well lie in the fact that he would prefer to see one of his sons-in-law, Brigadier General Chamel Roukoz, commander of the Rangers Regiment, appointed as army commander.
However, the Saida conflict could complicate Roukoz’s chances of reaching the top army post. On the one hand, he reaped the plaudits of a successful campaign, even though it cost the army the lives of 18 soldiers, most of them from the Rangers Regiment. On the other hand, the fact that the Rangers Regiment was the force that crushed Assir and his supporters will make Roukoz a potential target in the eyes of Sunni radicals across the country. The radicals already view the army — especially the special forces regiments — as an enemy and collaborator with Hezbollah. It was soldiers from the Air Assault Regiment, another special forces unit, that were involved in the fatal shooting of Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed at a checkpoint near Halba in Akkar in May last year. It was also Air Assault troops who sealed off Arsal in the wake of the clash in February between regular soldiers and gunmen, which left one resident of the town and two soldiers dead.
If no fresh appointments are made or the terms of the existing army commander and Military Council members are not extended, it leaves open the question of how the army can plan for and respond to any future unrest in the country. The army has already quietly withdrawn troops from south Lebanon. There were supposed to be some 15,000 troops deployed across the south in the wake of the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, but the figure never reached more than 8,000. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 calls on the army to take control of the southern border district, with UNIFIL playing a support role. If anything, the situation today is reversed, with an estimated 3,000 soldiers in the south and UNIFIL conducting around 90 percent of its patrols unaccompanied by Lebanese troops. The downturn is not the army’s fault, as soldiers are needed in more troublesome areas. For now, at least, the south is, ironically, perhaps the calmest spot in the country.
The capabilities of the army — and the special forces regiments in particular — are steadily improving, largely due to foreign military assistance for equipment and training. But if the army is going to continue to play the essential role of maintaining stability in Lebanon during a period of regional turbulence, the country’s leaders will have to find a formula that provides continuity at the top of the command.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London