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Lebanon's army caught in the crossfire again

  |   June 12, 2013 at 3:32 PM
BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 12 (UPI) -- Lebanon's military is struggling to maintain a modicum of security in a country that's lurching toward another sectarian showdown, fueled largely by the civil war raging next door in Syria, a state that's shed much Lebanese blood over the years.

But the army's increasingly being crippled because of political paralysis that has left Lebanon without an effective government at a time when sectarian tensions are approaching boiling point.

With the Syrian war spilling over into Lebanon a little more every day, the army's been unable to defend the border against attacks by Syrian regime forces or Sunni-led rebels going after Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the regime's key ally.

It has not been able to stop fierce gun battles between pro- and anti-Syrian forces in the flashpoint port city of Tripoli in north Lebanon and elsewhere.

More than 200 Lebanese have been killed in these clashes, and with Sunnis backing the Syrian rebels and Shiite Hezbollah stiffening President Bashar Assad's forces, the war is steadily encroaching on Lebanon.

That's heightened fears of a Sunni-Shiite showdown in Lebanon, a prospect that's been shaping up since the country's leading statesman, Sunni billionaire and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who opposed Syria and Hezbollah, was assassinated in a massive suicide bombing Feb. 14, 2005.

A U.N.-mandated international tribunal indicted four Hezbollah members, including a top security chief, for that killing.

Meantime, the army's "paralyzed and staring at a potential power vacuum by the end of the summer," the Now Lebanon website said.

Some see the dark hand of Hezbollah and its Syrian allies in crippling the military's command structure, particularly, the Military Council, which governs military affairs, including troop deployments and promotions.

Three of its six members recently retired. With no government in office because of sectarian squabbling, successors cannot be appointed and the council cannot function because four members must approve all decisions.

The army commander, Gen. Jean Kahwaji, a Maronite, has asked the caretaker defense minister for authority to make decisions unilaterally.

That approval has not been forthcoming, which means the army won't be able to mobilize if that's required.

But it gets worse. Kahwaji's due to retire in September and naming a successor is likely to entail a fierce political dogfight.

The problem is the Sunni factions are weak right now, with the Shiite Hezbollah and its allies dominant, and firmly opposed to extending Kahwaji's tenure because they want one of their own to take his place.

The Sunnis' recent inability to extend the tenure of Gen. Ahsraf Rifi as commander of the Internal Security Forces, a paramilitary force that's overwhelmingly Sunni and the only real counterweight to Hezbollah, bodes ill for the army.

"A power vacuum within the armed forces given the current situation ... would be a dangerous step for Lebanon's politicians to take," observed Now analyst Matt Nash.

The 57,000-man army isn't capable of taking on Hezbollah's battle-seasoned fighters, despite $700 million in second-hand equipment provided by the United States in recent years to build up the military as a counterweight to Hezbollah.

An estimated 60 percent of the army's rank-and-file are Shiites, and in a shootout would almost certainly side with their co-religionists who form Lebanon's largest sect.

During the 1975-90 civil war, the Christian-led army splintered along sectarian lines.

Druze and Shiite brigades actively aided militias from these sects to take control of mainly Muslim West Beirut in February 1984 and battled Maronite units until the end of the conflict.

The army command warned Friday there's a plot to drag Lebanon into "a futile war," a communique that sounded like a cry of despair from a military unable to defend the nation.

The army was pitted against jihadists of a group called Fatal al-Islam in a major battle in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in the northern port of Tripoli in June 2007.

In a four-month battle in which the camp was largely destroyed, the army finally crushed the jihadists in house-to-house fighting through sheer force of numbers.

The army 168 soldiers and 500 more were wounded. Some 300 jihadists were slain and others captured.

But the fighting demonstrated how poorly equipped the army is. It had little training in urban fighting and no air support except a few Vietnam-era Huey helicopters used to drop makeshift bombs on the insurgents.

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