Tripoli, Lebanon – Flicking through social media sites at a coffee shop on a Sunday morning in Tripoli, Naser Maamari and two friends share news on the recent arrest of a local Sunni man on terrorism charges.
News trickles in that the arrest has sparked a protest in the nearby neighbourhood of Badawi. The men are waiting to see whether armed clashes will erupt between local residents and the Lebanese army, which made the arrest.
The situation remained peaceful, but Maamari – a 26-year-old political science student who manages the Zahra wing of a public hospital in Tripoli which treats ill and injured Syrian refugees – would not be surprised if violence had erupted.
“There is a feeling of injustice. The army is arresting anyone with a beard. They are acting like they did in 1975, and that launched the civil war,” Maamari says. “Muslims don’t believe the soldiers are the enemy. They are our brothers and fathers and friends, and they are Muslims too. But we understand the anger. Can you imagine the situation when 40 percent of the population believes the army is against them?”
Anger is mounting in Lebanon’s Sunni community at what they see as collusion between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Iranian-backed Shia movement Hezbollah under Lebanon’s new coalition government.
The LAF is an important symbol of neutrality in Lebanon, which is split between Hezbollah and its March 8 coalition on one side, and the Saudi-backed, predominantly Sunni Future movement and its broader March 14 coalition. As a result, the LAF faces a difficult balancing act.
Car bombings happen almost daily in Lebanon. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates – Jabhat al-Nusra and its branch in Lebanon, the Abdullah Azzam brigades – have claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in Shia neighbourhoods in Beirut and in the northern border region. The attacks are retribution for Hezbollah’s decision to send fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in his war against largely Sunni rebels.
After the new government was announced, we started hearing about a lot of people being captured by the army, including sheiks, accusing them of terrorism.
Intense efforts are now under way to bolster the army’s endeavours to stem the attacks and secure the Syrian border region, which is plagued by arms trafficking and cross-border clashes.
Lebanon’s military has its work cut out for it. It is already woefully, underfunded, understaffed, with insignificant air and naval forces, and dwarfed by Hezbollah in military capacity. Now, the army is being stretched and its priorities recalibrated from defending the Israel-Lebanon border to guarding the Syria-Lebanon border and ensuring domestic security.
Hostility from the Sunni community towards the army adds a new and unpredictable dynamic to the tensions. “After the new government was announced, we started hearing about a lot of people being captured by the army, including sheikhs, accusing them of terrorism. This makes people very angry on top of the Hezbollah interference in Syria already,” says Maamari. “Stop Hezbollah, then arrest the terrorists.”
Since January, LAF and the country’s security forces have gone on the offensive, chalking up a large number of arrests and publicising the seizure of explosive-laden cars. Jabhat al-Nusra has deemed the Lebanese army a “legitimate target”, and already, five soldiers have been killed in two attacks which were claimed by the group.
On March 13, the LAF issued a statement saying that new security measures had succeeded in reducing the number of car bombings in Lebanon, adding that 870 people had been arrested and 226 cars impounded in February. “These efforts have resulted in the detention of one of the most wanted suspects, the discovery of a number of rigged cars, in terrorist groups feeling the noose around their necks, and have made the targeting of civilian areas more difficult,” the military statement read.
International partners and stakeholders are also ramping up funding and support for the LAF. The UN and the International Support Group for Lebanon – set up to shield Lebanon from Syrian fallout – has drawn up a five-year plan for the LAF, assessing its needs and capabilities.
It's in everyone's interests to have a robust army in Lebanon.
In late December, Saudi Arabia gave a massive $3bn grant to the LAF, and the UK has pledged more than $19m. More funding is expected to be secured at a meeting of the Support Group tentatively scheduled for June in Rome.
How the Saudi money will be spent is still being discussed, but Israeli objections mean the funding will not likely be used to bolster Lebanon’s air defences. Nonetheless, according to one senior Beirut-based UN official involved in the drafting of the plan, talks with the LAF have been productive.
“It’s in everyone’s interests to have a robust army in Lebanon,” the official said, on condition of anonymity. “After nine months they had come up with a plan that could actually work, and we could sell to the donors. I believe it is absolutely as good as it can be.”
Additional funding could also neutralise the perception that the army has been politicised by countries like Saudi Arabia, the official said.
But rather than assuage Lebanese Sunnis, the Saudi role in funding the army has only increased their anger. Many Lebanese Sunnis claim their new government is targeting them, while Hezbollah continues to kill Sunnis across the border in Syria with impunity.
The Future movement also risks alienating its constituents, in what observers say could push Sunnis to embrace more radical leaders. From his offices in Tripoli, Ahmad al-Kassas, the spokesman of the Hizb ut-Tahrir party, says the Sunni community is “very angry at Future for this agreement. Years ago the Future movement had popular support, but not now. The US-Saudi formed government gave the army a mandate to arrest anyone supporting the revolution in Syria”.
If the Syrian army continues to shell Lebanese territory and the army cannot defend it, he says, “there will be more division and more violence”.
Aram Nerguizian, an expert on Lebanon’s military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says poor Sunnis “certainly have grounds for some degree of anger”.
“The failure of moderate Sunni leaders to champion their socioeconomic and political interests in the wake of Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, has left northern and rural Sunnis feeling underrepresented,” he says.
Political cover is needed from Sunni leadership for the LAF to deal with security threats along the border and the proliferation of Salafi and religious fighters.
Nerguizian says the LAF is “working to fix its strategic communications to make it clear that this is not an anti-Sunni strategy”. With Sunnis making up roughly 40 percent of the army, Nerguizian points out that “the LAF cannot and does not want to be perceived as targeting any leading constituent community in Lebanon”.
Despite the army’s demographics, the perception that the army and security services are dominated by Hezbollah will be difficult to shake without a strong government. Retired Army General Hisham Jaber, in an interview, denied that the security services are skewed. “The terrorists are trying to turn the Shia community against Hezbollah – obviously they don’t read history,” Jaber told Al Jazeera. “I also wish that Hezbollah did not go into Syria, but they will stay there until they finish the battle in Qalamoun.”
And, while sophisticated weapons are important, “political understanding can minimise the tensions and decrease terrorism”.
In Tripoli, a new front is emerging. “Whenever you have a person arrested, now you see protests and tyres being burned. If things keep going like they are, the situation will become explosive,” added Maamari.