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BEIRUT, Aug 5 2014 (IPS) - Concerns about supporting a national army collaborating with a ‘terrorist organisation’ in Lebanon have in recent times been superseded by threats inherent in growing regional conflict.
The fact that Hezbollah, officially designated as a ‘terrorist organisation’ by both the United States and the European Union, no longer conceals its involvement in the fighting across the Lebanese-Syrian border makes little difference.
When traveling through the eastern Beqaa Valley, posters of Hezbollah ‘shaheed’ (‘martyrs’) of the Syrian conflict vie for space with those of popular Shia imams and the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
In one seen by this IPS correspondent on a recent trip to the area, Nasrallah’s face and that of another Shia political leader flank that of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, with the writing ‘’this is what heroes are’’.
On July 26, the ‘Party of God’ announced in a statement that Nasrallah’s nephew, Hamzah Yassin, had been killed performing his ‘’jihadist duty defending holy sites’’, implying he had lost his life fighting in Syria.
The United States and other nations’ support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has long served as a bulwark against excessive volatility in the small but confessionally-diverse Middle Eastern country. At the same time, care has been taken to prevent it from becoming so strong as to pose a threat to its southern neighbour and strong U.S. ally – Israel.
Hezbollah, sworn enemy of the ‘Zionist entity’ (as it refers to Israel), continues to claim that its more powerful arsenal is for its struggle against Israel, even as ever more of its means and men are directed at fighting rebel groups in Syria.
At the same time, it seems to be gaining ever more influence in Lebanon’s policies and military.
Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told IPS that Hezbollah ‘‘is believed to have a lot of influence on the military intelligence [directorate] in particular –which would make sense as it is the most sensitive agency and the agency that would, potentially, monitor Hezbollah.’’
On the fact that Hezbollah moves fighters and weapons across the border, Sayigh said that ‘’Hezbollah has a lot of de facto power; it acts autonomously on these issues. They must have some sort of agreement that allows them to bring back their dead and wounded, for example,’’ or ‘’it may be that they move them through corridors no one, including the army, is allowed to enter.’’
Sayigh noted that compared with the LAF, Hezbollah ‘’has heavier, longer-range missiles.’’
However, the LAF will benefit, he said, ‘’if the current development programme goes through’’, because ‘’significant quantities of more up-to-date weaponry, transport systems and so on’’ will be available to them.
In January, Saudi Arabia pledged 3 billion dollars in aid and the International Support Group for Lebanon promised at a Rome conference in June to provide more training, among other support.
However, Hezbollah’s key strategic advantage remains ‘’its superior organisation, intelligence, battlefield management and the close relationship between its political and military leaders,’’ which is what the LAF lacks, according to Sayigh. ‘’It is also thought to have a lot of say in the choice, recruitment and promotion of Shia officers in the army.’’
In relation to border control and weapons smuggling in certain areas by Syrian rebel groups, he noted that ‘’once Hezbollah accepted the deployment of the police in its own strongholds in southern Beirut, it became possible for the army to deploy more extensively along the northern and eastern border, and be somewhat more effective.’’
The effectiveness of the LAF is further weakened by such problems as the soldier-to-general ratio, which according to a paper published earlier this year, stands at just under one general for every 100 soldiers, compared with the U.S. army, which in October 2013 had one general for 1,357 soldiers.
The more efficiently organised non-state actor has instead been called a ‘’jihadist’’ organisation, and describes what its fighters dying in the conflict in Syria are doing as their ‘’jihadist duty’’.
Asked to comment on whether Hezbollah is comparable to Sunni jihadist organisations, Sayigh said that ‘’it is an Islamist organisation’’ but ‘’it has accepted that it cannot construct an Islamic state in Lebanon.’’
Sayigh noted that ‘’to the extent that they are mobilising Shia fighters from Iran or from Iraq to go fight in Syria, we do witness a growing form of Shia jihadism, the idea that people are going to fight in defence of the Shia doctrine, to protect Shia shrines. There is a growing sense of, if you like, Shia jihadism,’’ but ‘’Hezbollah stands out for working within a much more careful political and military framework.’’
He said, however, that ‘’they are increasingly recruiting from outside of their own ranks,’’ showing a ‘’higher level of mobilisation among the Shia community. Whether or not these people get paid is unclear.’’
Mustafa Allouch, head of the Tripoli branch of the Future Party and former MP for the city, said instead that ‘’a lot of money is being paid.’’
‘’It is said that Hezbollah provides 20,000 dollars for a ‘martyr’ buried openly, and 100,000 if the parents agree to bury him without a funeral,’’ he said.
In relation to the United States and its financial support for Lebanon overall, Sayigh said ‘’there seems to have been a strategic decision to continue to cooperate with the Lebanese government, the Lebanese army, and other agencies even when Hezbollah is in a coalition government.’’
‘’The country is fragile and in deep economic trouble,’’ Sayigh pointed out, ‘’and the U.S. decision has been to ‘’avoid overburdening the Lebanese system to breaking point.’’
However, a local employee of a U.N. agency expressed concerns to IPS – on condition of anonymity – that de facto authorisation in many areas comes from Hezbollah and not the government itself.
Nevertheless, the army can point to some achievements in the past few months. In December 2013, LAF was given a mandate to keep order in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli amid rapidly escalating violence. In a visit to the city in July by IPS, overall calm prevailed and many of the sandbags, tanks and troops deployed earlier in the year were nowhere to be seen.
When asked what the major factor was that led to the calm, Allouch said that ‘’when you have a political agreement to withdraw all gang leaders,’’ citing arrest warrants issued for Alawite community leaders accused of crimes, which led to their escaping across the border to Syria, ‘’you can achieve things. The military is simply imposing what the political agreement was.’’
He noted that, although Hezbollah could be compared in many ways to a ‘’gang’’, there could be no talk of the Lebanese army ‘’confronting Hezbollah militarily’’.
‘’It would end in civil war. And the Lebanese army itself would not hold, given the situation in the region. Hezbollah is not a local issue, it is a regional one.’’
(Edited by Phil Harris)
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