In the streets of Bab al-Tabbaneh the edifices of buildings, former homes, crumble like wet cardboard, decaying onto the sidewalk offset by a brooding, cloud-covered sky. Occasionally structures that have escaped damage — an interior stair-case, a recently re-modelled bathroom — can be seen from street level, their mundane normality thrown into relief by the devastation that surrounds them, like a surrealist composition in a Dali painting.
Outside the al-Taqwa Mosque, targeted in a bomb attack linked to affiliates of the Assad regime in August 2013, congregants speak openly of their distrust of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Currently in Lebanon it is common for citizens to receive text messages from the LAF calling for national solidarity in the face of al-Erhab (terrorism). But on the steps of al-Taqwa, and in the streets of Tabbaneh such messages are often given short thrift. Residents increasingly feel that the reference to al-Erhab is a reference to them.
The destruction reeked upon Bab al-Tabbaneh during clashes between armed militant groups and the LAF in late October exceeds that witnessed in previous altercations in the Tripoli neighbourhood since the outset of Syria’s civil war in March 2013.
A tentative calm has since returned. However the LAF has embarked on an intense campaign of security clampdowns, both in the city and elsewhere in the country aimed at flushing out latent ISISISIS and al-Nusra linked cells.
Whilst clashes in Tripoli between gunmen in Bab al-Tabbaneh and both the Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen, and the LAF, have run hot and cold over the last three years, increased security concerns since gunmen overran the Bekaa border town of Arsal in August have resulted in the widest deployment of the LAF in the institution’s history.
Along the Lebanese-Syrian border in the Bekaa clashes between rebel groups and the LAF are reported on an almost daily basis, whilst the intensity of clampdowns in Tripoli has pushed militant cells into Akkar and Dinniyeh, resulting in numerous attacks on LAF personnel in the majority Sunni region. Recently, the head of one ISIS-linked cell, arrested in Dinniyeh, is said to have confessed under interrogation to a grandiose plot to open up a corridor to the sea linking Arsal with Hermel, Dinniyeh, Akkar and ultimately Tripoli
Given current pre-occupations in Syria and Iraq such a plan is unlikely to be at the forefront of ISIS central command’s agenda however the appearance of such stories in local media has created palpable public tension, that in some ways has vindicated LAF actions: in recent opinion polls conducted by the Lebanese Association of Democratic Elections the LAF was voted more trustworthy than any other official institution in Lebanon y members of the public.
However the LAF’s current spate of raids have also drawn criticism.
Critics accuse the LAF of conducting raids overzealously, targeting both local and refugee Sunni communities, whilst Shiite areas dominated by Hezbollah’s illicit arsenal have gone untouched. This has raised fears that LAF raids could lead to the further radicalisation of Lebanese Sunnis and Syrian refugee populations by reinforcing ISIS and Nusra’s desire to claim an affinity between the LAF and Hezbollah. This narrative has gathered steam in Lebanese Islamist circles following events such as the June 2013 Battle of Sidon between LAF forces and supporters of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir during which Hezbollah operatives are said to have assisted army troops; and as a result of the LAF’s deployment in defence of the Lebanese border, often seemingly alongside Hezbollah.
“We are seeing that the LAF is focusing on the arms of the Sunni community, whilst ignoring, even appearing to protect the Shiite enclaves. That there appear to be no repercussions for Hezbollah creates grievances, that could lead to extremist feelings and a more armed approach from some Sunnis,” Imad Salamey, a politics professor at the Lebanese American University, told Al Arabiya News.
Salamey, however, points out that in addition to the popular support the LAF has managed to maintain in spite of clampdowns, the institution has also been given the political backing of Lebanon’s moderate Sunni leadership lead by the Future Movement’s Saad Hariri. This illustrates the lack of political support Lebanese Islamists enjoy, in contrast to Hezbollah’s militias, officially represented in parliament, and regionally by Iran.
“The Sunni leadership lead by Hariri has been open about their support for the LAF. In some way these raids are as much a Sunni demand as they are a Shiite or Christian one,” observes Salamey.
Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, argues that weaknesses in Lebanon’s Sunni leadership, evidenced in the ongoing failure to effectively address chronic unemployment and standards of living amongst Sunni communities living particularly in Tripoli and north Lebanon has provided leeway for extremist groups to find support. It is no coincidence that Tripoli and Akkar, where recruitment to the LAF has traditionally been strong due to a lack of job opportunities on the ground, have similarly become areas of recruitment for ISIS and Nusra.
“In the post Rafiq Hariri world there is no Sunni leadership in Lebanon that is as effective, focused, or coherent on a broad set of issues as there Shiite analogues,” says Nerguizian.
“This has created room for militant organisations who have taken up a cause rooted in domestic socio-economics in terms of just how badly the macro-economic indicators in Tripoli and Akkar have remained over the last three or four decades.”
Whilst the recent defections of a number of LAF members to join ISIS and Nusra has raised concerns about the LAF’s internal cohesion Nerguizian argues such incidents should not cause overdue concern. To date only five soldiers, one of whom has since handed himself over to the LAF, have defected from a fighting force of 65,500.
Currently, the LAF is certainly not going to risk damaging its internal cohesion by attempting to clamp down on Hezbollah’s illegal possession of arms and intervention in Syria. Away from arguments concerning the ethics of the Shiite group’s weapons, on a practical level any confrontation between the LAF and Hezbollah would likely only breed internal chaos and open up the border to insurrections.
Over the course of 2014 increased fallout from Syria has seen the LAF move into areas, particularly in the Western Bekaa, traditionally the exclusive domain of Hezbollah, and previously the Syrian army. The institution’s capabilities have also been greatly enhanced by the continued offering of military grants by a plethora of international actors that now includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, America, Britain, France, Russia, China, and South Korea. This growing self-assertion could, in the long run, lead to tensions between the two groups.
Whilst figures in the March 14 movement may look favourably upon the LAF’s growing capabilities as the emergence of a force one day capable of putting pressure on Hezbollah’s illicit activities, presuming that a stronger, united LAF would ensure a more peaceful Lebanon is a potentially dangerous game.
“Imagine what it would have to do: stop the flow of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon to Syria, arrest the four Hezbollah connected suspects in the STL case, close down the illegal Hezbollah docks at the Port, etc. For the Lebanese state’s security establishment to deal with all these problems responsibly as a sovereign state would mean inflating the size of that establishment. This can also have bad repercussions on freedoms in the country,” said Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow of Chatham House.
“The cure may be worse than the disease.”