Ambush in Lebanon Shows Need to Heal Sectarian Divide

Article Summary
Following the ambush of an army patrol in the town of Arsal that left two soldiers dead, the Lebanese state must work to overcome its sectarian divide and protect the army, writes Talal Salman.

One “security event” was enough to reveal the erosion of Lebanon’s various institutions, be they governmental, political or popular. It seems this tiny country must struggle mightily simply to avoid tumbling yet again into the abyss of civil war, even as its sectarian leaders dance happily on the precipice.

Was it coincidence alone that turned Arsal into a stage for an ambush and then a gunfight? Was it coincidence alone that one of the victims was an officer from a village widely regarded as the gateway to the Bekaa Valley, a place where an inclusive, patriotic climate still reigns, where the locals still host parties bearing patriotic and nationalistic banners, despite all the bitter trials that Lebanese have endured? Was it a coincidence that the other casualty was a corporal from the village of Qattah near Halba, the capital of the Akkar province, in an area that has suffered from the deepest misery and official neglect?

This is in addition to a “fugitive” from Arsal — where, below the flinty village stones, lies a long row of martyrs who died for the nation during the bitter trials of the Lebanese Civil War. Arsal constitutes, along with Akkar, the back door to an open border between Lebanon and Syria, one which might develop into a fighting front over the course of crises yet to shake this tiny country, but which are already ravaging Syria. If so, this may yet prove to be the bloodiest and most ominous threat hanging over the future of the entire Levant.

The tongues of fire have scorched all the Lebanese, especially when the flames are eagerly fanned, threatening the patriotic unity and the country. The greatest fear must, at this moment, be reserved for the army: the last institution embodying the unity of the nation and its people.

This is so because the army is one of the last remaining pillars of the state. The soldier may well be regarded as “the last citizen,” for he leaves his sectarian affiliation behind at home — along with his family ties and identity — and goes into an institution that nurtures a shared belonging that brings together all Lebanese, in all their sectarian and religious diversity.

Alone among all others, the soldier does not deal with the people on the basis of their sects. This is not the case in other countries. It is the nature of the institution that embodies both the nation and its people.

But the government, insofar as it is the direct embodiment of a confessional regime, becomes in moments of weakness and division the primary danger to the army and thence to national unity.

Through the bitter experiences of the last several years, the army has been subjected to harsh tests: in Akkar and Tripoli, in Baalbek and its environs, in the Lebanese mountains and even in the southern suburbs of Beirut itself. In no other country in the world is the army deployed in the streets and the alleys, in the public squares and at the gates of public institutions and leadership offices, as the impoverished soldiers of Lebanon are deployed throughout the various corners of Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, Baalbek and a few towns of the Western Bekaa and Mount Lebanon, in order to prevent anticipated clashes when their fellow citizens meet one another at “demarcation lines.” And how many there are!

Indeed, the army is often forced into fights without sufficient political cover, while local militias taunt them: “God help you if you open fire. Just take down the checkpoints and leave the rest to us!”

But “the rest” has come to accumulate and accumulate until the checkpoints have become veritable dams separating brothers from their countries, compatriots from their shared fate. The army has become a “false witness,” while the pillars of the present government embark on battle after battle with the pillars of the previous government — all over the deterioration of security and while exposing the army to the danger of disintegration.

Maybe this is is why the army has become a refuge. Whenever the president’s chair lies vacant and political disputes sharpen, all sides make recourse to the army as the only stable institution outside the reigning political alignments and a new president is chosen from its ranks. Moreover, it is the point of contact between the Lebanese interior and the outside world. Thus in the last 50 years, three of the last 11 presidents have been drawn from the military leadership.

The bloody clash may have taken place in Arsal, but its political consequences have become apparent in the clear schisms in the government’s position on the affair. They have also allowed sectarian parties to insert themselves into “interpreting the causes” of the fighting, and locating the responsibility for it. Should a dispute over the clash’s martyrs erupt, it will involve more than the inhabitants of Mrayjat, Arsal, Qattah and Akkar.

Despite this, George Bishalany, the father of the martyred Maj. Pierre Bishalany, who had spent more than 40 years as an educator, insists that responsibility for the crime lies solely with the extremists. He emphasizes that there is no enmity between the people of Mrayjat and those of Arsal, but that, on the contrary, they have much in common.

From here, the town that looks down upon almost the entire Bekaa Valley resembles Arsal in the way its people’s fortunes are closely linked to Syria. Before the establishment of Chatoura, the village of Mrayjat was virtually a mandatory waystation for travelers headed to Damascus or returning from there in the direction of Beirut. It is a typical village located on the last frontier of Christian-Druze integration in the Chouf region. Even if it remains part of the Bekaa in an administrative sense, in reality it serves as the valley’s gateway.

Today, Syrian cars travel from Damascus to Beirut and vice versa, weighed down by the images of a tragic, open wound in a country that occupies an ambiguous place for Lebanese. At once it is the brotherly neighbor, a source of security and also a source of danger. The protective wall provided by this neighbor, this almost-brother, has fallen.

The Mrayjat that witnessed the Syrian intervention in Lebanon (which came in the name of putting an end to the civil war) has also witnessed the retreat following the assassination of President Rafiq al-Hariri, the assassination that opened up a new chapter in the history of Lebanon. Yet through all this, the village’s relationship with the Syrians remains unaffected.

Likewise, Arsal was a reservoir of progressive revolutionaries as well as a faithful stronghold of the Syrians and a forward outpost for their security forces. It was so because both land and ancestries were mixed and intermingled, irrespective of the border that meanders through the region’s various hills, plateaus and properties. That Arsal was transformed by the war in Syria into a war zone, as it was bound to do when the conflagration there spread into its surroundings. Just as it would inevitably affect those traveling to this region, its already tense atmosphere  became burdened by the accoutrements of war, made doubly worse by the abundance of provocateurs fanning the flames of civil strife. Just like everywhere else in Lebanon.

But the problem is not between Mrayjat and Arsal. It is an open-ended political crisis that is paralyzing the country economically and further charging the sectarian atmosphere that threatens this tiny country and its institutions. Should that crisis escalate, it could destroy security and pummel local entities in a wave of unrest that will sweep through the Arab world.

The vital thing is protecting the army, so that something will remain to remind others of the state’s continued existence. It must be protected from the political class above all else, and thereafter from those who are always seeking to light the fires of civil war.

Talal Salman founded As-Safir daily, which would reach the second largest circulation of Lebanese newspapers after An-Nahar. He was the spokesman of the "Islamo-progressist" left wing during the Lebanese civil war.

Found in: syrian crisis, sectarianism, sectarian tension, sectarian, lebanon, lebanese politics, lebanese army, arsal, ahmad al-assir

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