Lebanon: The Army's Role

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The Guardian/UK

Lebanon: The Army's Role

It is tempting to see the current violence in Lebanon as a fight between Shia and Sunni, and as a preamble to a civil war. Tempting but inaccurate.

While the Shia in Lebanon are almost unanimous in their support of Hizbullah and its ally, Amal, the Sunnis and Christians are divided in their opposition to Hizbullah.

And Hizbullah has made a clear distinction between the Washington-backed coalition government of prime minister Fouad Siniora, and the military led by General Michel Suleiman. While fighting the Sunni and Druze militias belonging to the parties in the government, Hizbullah is cooperating with the army, handing over the captured areas in Beirut, the Shouf mountains and Tripoli to the regular armed forces of Lebanon.

Those allied with Hizbullah include not only Amal but slso the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP), a faction of Greek Orthodox Christians, the second largest group among Christians after the Maronite Catholics. Established in 1947 with the aim of creating a Greater Syria consisting of Syria and Lebanon, the SSNP was outlawed in 1949. After the ban was lifted in 1970, it sided with the Shia to form the pro-Damascus National Front.

During the 1975-1990 civil war, it became an important element in the anti-Israeli front, conducting guerrilla actions against the Israeli troops in southern Lebanon. After the war its leader, Inaam Raad, became a minister in the national unity government in 1992.

While the Sunnis in Beirut are supportive of the Siniora government, and have provided the fighters for the Future movement's militia, this is not the case in the northern port of Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city. Here fighting broke out between the Future militia and the Sunni Islamists belonging to the Tawheed faction.

There is apparent division between the Siniora government and the military commanded by Gen Suleiman. The government's sacking of Gen Wafiq Shoukair as the head of the airport's security chief, which set off the crisis last week, was not backed by the army chief. Shoukair's reinstatement since then has signified Hizbullah's political victory.

Equally, recognising its defeat at the hands of Hizbullah, the government has moderated its initial order to Hizbullah to close down its independent communications network by inducting the military into the dispute. The army has said that it will merely "investigate" Hizbullah's network.

All along, Gen Suleiman has been scrupulously neutral in the fighting. His soldiers have fired in the air to separate the partisans of the two camps, making sure not to side with either. And Hizbullah militiamen have passed on the control of west Beirut and other areas to the soldiers.

Suleiman's stance stems from two main considerations: one positive, the other negative. He is the choice of the government and the opposition as the future president of the republic once the two camps have reconciled their differences on the formation of a new national unity cabinet in which Hizbullah and its allies are claiming one-third of the seats.

The other main reason for Suleiman's strict neutrality is the fear that, if push comes to shove, the army will break up along sectarian lines. Since a majority of the soldiers are Shia, they will end up siding with the Hizbullah camp. That would definitely lead to a civil war, a prospect which an overwhelming majority of Lebanese dread.

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