This week, followers of a radical Sunni cleric fought for two days with Lebanese security forces in the southern city of Sidon, in clashes that reportedly killed 18 soldiers and up to 40 of the cleric’s followers. In an email interview, Oren Barak, associate professor of political science and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained the Lebanese armed forces’ position within Lebanese society and its efforts to maintain stability amid spillover from Syria’s civil war.
WPR: What is the Lebanese army’s position within Lebanon’s factional society, and who does it answer to?
Oren Barak: The Lebanese armed forces (LAF) includes members of all sectors of Lebanese society (ethnic groups, large families and regions), and its officer corps has become more balanced since the civil war of 1975-1990. Importantly, the LAF is respected in Lebanon not only because of its composition but also because it has power-sharing mechanisms in its command and in the civilian controlling bodies, and on account of its national identity, missions and tasks. But in recent months, the LAF has faced a dual challenge: First, Lebanon is witnessing a political stalemate because of difficulties in forming a new government, drafting a new election law and appointing new chiefs for the security agencies. Second, the spillover of the Syrian crisis into the country is growing. Until now, most of Lebanon’s factions have considered the LAF to be an impartial actor. But the fact that the LAF has allowed the Shiite party-militia Hezbollah to intervene in the Syrian crisis and assist the Assad regime, while preventing other factions from extending support to the Syrian rebels, is prompting some Lebanese to question the LAF’s position.