The Lebanese Rally Round the Army
A radical Islamic group takes its fight to the streets
BEIRUTAfter spending much of the past year bitterly split over politics, religion, and ethnicity, Lebanon had a rare moment of unity last week as all factions backed the Lebanese Army in street fights and artillery bombardment against a small group of al Qaeda-inspired Islamic extremists.
But don't expect the unity to last. The botched arrest of bank robbery suspects that led to a siege of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon exposed the fundamental weakness in the Lebanese state: It can't protect itself or its people. That was evident last summer, when Shiite radical Hezbollah set off a war with Israel that ravaged southern Lebanon. This time, a small, relatively unknown Sunni Muslim group called Fatah al-Islam bloodied the Lebanese Army; after losing more than 30 soldiers in two days of clashes, the Army was forced to resort to artillery and tank bombardments of the camp with seemingly little regard for the civilians trapped inside.
For a time, before a cease-fire took effect, the Lebanese Army lost control of the northern checkpoint into Nahr al-Baredwhich is more a city than a traditional camp. Local Lebanese were forced to take up arms to hold off the Palestinian radicals. "We had to protect our homes," said Abu Hassan, whose son fought against the group. "The Army could do nothing to save us."
Stretched thin. The roughly 40,000-man Lebanese Army is already stretched thin: Fifteen thousand troops patrol the border with Israel, and an additional 8,000 secure the border with Syria under last summer's cease-fire with Israel. With more than half its men committed to these duties, the Army also has thousands of soldiers on patrol in Beirut, both to head off sectarian political violence and to try to end a string of bombings targeted at anti-Syrian communities. A fear now is that Palestinian anger over the Army's shelling of Nahr al-Bared could lead to violence at the 11 other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which are home to over 200,000 residents. Many of the camps have armed groups far better trained and equipped than Fatah al-Islam.
The Lebanese Army lacks the military capability to check such a contagion. Even the brief flare-up last week required the Bush administration to rush planeloads of replacement weapons and ammunition requested by the Lebanese government. With the government rendered ineffectual by the political stalemate between American-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the Hezbollah-led opposition, Lebanon as a nation relies on its Army as a neutral institution to keep order. If the Army collapses as a series of camp wars breaks out, the rest of the country could soon follow.
This story appears in the June 4, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.