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Syrian conflict stokes Sunni anger in Lebanon, with army now seen as threat

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — For more and more Sunni Muslim militants in this country, the army is transforming from an ineffective and neutral player to an enemy.

“Today, we feel that the army is the lap of the devil,” said Bilal Masri, a leader of one of Tripoli’s many Sunni militias. “We feel that the Lebanese army does not have its own orders, it works for a foreign agenda.”

Since Syria’s civil war began in the spring of 2011, Sunni militants in Lebanon have been emboldened by the successes of the mostly Sunni Syrian rebels. Increasingly, Lebanese Sunni militants see themselves as part of the Syrian rebels’ fight — with Hezbollah, the powerful Shia movement and militia that is often seen as the dominant actor in Lebanon, representing an extension of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Now Sunni militants in Lebanon are accusing the Lebanese army of picking sides, too.

They accuse the military of effectively siding with Hezbollah and the Syrian government by ignoring the activity of Shia militant factions in Lebanon, while clamping down on Sunni fighters. In seats of Sunni militancy such as the northern city of Tripoli, there have been protests since the beginning of the conflict in Syria claiming that the Lebanese army and the state have treated Sunnis unfairly.

The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) categorically deny the claim.

“The LAF is made of all categories of Lebanese people. lt is an institution that has not been impacted by the political and [denominational] divisions in Lebanon and the whole region, since the LAF personnel believe that they belong to all the Lebanese and that the army treats all people equally,” Lebanon’s Ministry of National Defense said in a statement emailed to GlobalPost.

“The LAF is executing security keeping operations over the Lebanese territory, under a mandate from the Cabinet, and is not dealing with militants on the basis of their religious affiliation,” the ministry added.

Of course, militants don’t speak for all of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, estimated to represent around a third of the country’s four million citizens. But they are major drivers of the country’s sectarian conflicts.

Growing hostility toward the army along with the continued inflow of refugees into the country from Syria represent “the single biggest danger to Lebanon stemming from the Syrian conflict,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle EastCenter.

Countless civilians agree. In late June, many Lebanese breathed a collective sigh of relief when army units stormed the mosque of firebrand Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir in the southern city of Sidon.

Assir had risen to prominence quickly since the start of the conflict in Syria by advocating that the Sunni community directly challenge Hezbollah. To some in a Sunni community left leaderless and politically marginalized following the 2011 self-exile of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, it was an attractive message. To other Lebanese, the message seemed to be paving a road to conflict.

According to numerous reports, video footage, and members of the Shia group itself, Hezbollah forces joined the military in the battle at Sidon, attacking Assir’s men from nearby Shia areas. The army, however, claimed that the video was fabricated, and the reports of military cooperation with Hezbollah part of a “cheap political and media campaign.”

“The non-[denominational] structure of the LAF forbids any joint action with any other party, neither in Sidon nor in any region of Lebanon,” the defense ministry told GlobalPost.

The capture of the compound ended two days of fierce fighting that began after the sheikh’s followers allegedly attacked an army checkpoint. At least 18 soldiers along with dozens of Assir’s gunmen were killed in the course of the battle. The cleric went on the run.

While the public was relieved, hardline Sunnis saw evidence of Hezbollah joining forces with the military as definitive proof that the army had turned against them.

“We were the first ones to defend the Lebanese Army when they clashed with the Palestinians in Nahr al-Bared camp,” said Masri, referring to a three-month-long battle between the army and Al Qaeda-linked militants in 2007. “They paid us back by killing us in Sidon.”

That feeling of betrayal among Sunni militants is currently one of the most dangerous threats to stability in Lebanon.

“The army is essentially the only thing between a complete state of security anarchy in Lebanon and what you have now, which is not quite anarchy though it is a bad situation,” Itani, of the Atlantic Council, said.

The army is perhaps the only widely respected public institution in Lebanon, where sectarian loyalties often limit expressions of nationalism. The military is a rare body where members of all factions work together and find opportunities regardless of sect.  While the plurality earns the military popular support, it also challenges the institution with internal divisions: many enlisted men still feel the pull of the communities into which they were born.

As a result, the army has often ended up a spectator in Lebanon’s conflicts. In May 2008, the army watched quietly as Hezbollah and its allies stormed parts of West Beirut after the government attempted to shut down the group’s private telecommunications network. In the now frequent clashes between Sunni and Alawite militias in Tripoli, many army units often wait until the fighting quiets down to secure the streets and make little attempt to stop militia activity even when it occurs right in front of their positions.

Even militants who speak harshly of the army still appreciate the dangers of causing dissent within its ranks — though their patience is running low.

“Even though we still have our differences with the army, we are still willing to protect them because if this institution comes to an end, Lebanon is over with,” said Masri, the militia leader.

Others are less sympathetic. Omar Bakri, a radical Sunni preacher based in Tripoli, calls the Lebanese forces a “Crusader army” and said “to join the army is apostasy.”

The military maintains that they don’t treat the factions differently. “We have already mentioned that the LAF is made of all categories of Lebanese people; its structure doesn’t allow any sympathy with one category at the expenses of the other; it implements the state policies regarding incidents in Syria. However, militants of all categories know the land and illegal crossings and passages, and in cooperation with traffickers, they sometimes infiltrate from both sides,” the defense ministry said, adding: “The LAF is exerting all efforts to track and stop them, by all military and security means.”

While Lebanon’s government officially pushed a policy of disassociation regarding the conflict in Syria, and warned Lebanese parties against getting involved, little was said after Hezbollah publicly acknowledged that its forces were fighting on the side of the Syrian government in May.

Along the border, Hezbollah forces operate openly, carrying weapons and crossing back and forth over the frontier. Lebanese soldiers seem to ignore this activity. Elsewhere on the border, Sunni militants backing Syria’s rebels also operate, but do so quietly and face crackdowns and clashes with the army.

Some say the army is just choosing what it views as the best option out of a set of bad choices.

In confronting Sunni militants, “the Lebanese army is prioritizing its domestic stability interests versus regional instability,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert on Lebanon’s armed forces. “They’re basically making the calculus that Hezbollah going to Syria is the lesser evil.”

Hezbollah involvement in Syria tipped the scales in the battle for the strategic border town of Qusayr in Homs province, forcing rebels from the town in June. Some Syrian rebels view the Lebanese government as complicit in Hezbollah’s actions and threatened to attack Lebanon in retaliation.

“Hezbollah is the main part of the government,” said a Free Syrian Army member involved in special operations who identified himself using his nom de guerre, Omar al-Homsi. “If we target any place inside Lebanon against the government or against Hezbollah, we are targeting Hezbollah.”

As more local militants begin to see the government and armed forces the same way, the risk of controversial showdowns like the one in Sidon continues to grow.

Editor’s note: Lebanon’s defense ministry responded to requests for comment on this story sent in late October on Nov. 13, after the original article had been published. The article has since been updated. Most of the reporting for this story was conducted in July, in Tripoli, Lebanon.

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