Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Military precision? Assessing the army's role in Abdel Wahed's killing

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon. Co-written with Shane Farrell]

The killing of a Sunni cleric and his bodyguard by a soldier at a checkpoint in Akkar on Sunday is a setback to the image of neutrality on which the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) prides itself. The cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed, was an outspoken critic of the Syrian regime, a fact that has led to speculation about a possible political motive for the killing. The incident comes days after deadly clashes began in Tripoli sparked by the General Security’s arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, an Islamist accused of belonging to a terrorist organization. Supporters of Mawlawi deny this, believing his arrest to have been political, due to his support for the Syrian opposition. He was released on Tuesday.

The precise details surrounding Sunday’s killing of the two men remain unclear. According to Abdel Wahed's driver, Khaled Merheb, whose story has been corroborated by most reports, the sheikh was in the car with his bodyguard, Mohammad Hussein Merheb, and Khaled Merheb was driving. At the checkpoint a verbal altercation between the sheikh and one soldier began after the sheikh was asked to get out of the car. The chauffeur stepped out, but Abdel Wahed took the driver’s seat and turned the vehicle around to go back, which is when the soldier fired at the car, killing the sheikh.

Assuming that this was the case—that is, that the killing was not in self-defense—then it constitutes a flagrant and criminal violation of military procedure, according to retired LAF General Elias Hanna. “The rules of engagement mandate a progressive increase in the use of violence. Firing should be the last step. You talk first, you warn, you create hurdles in the path of the vehicle, you inform another checkpoint. Only after all of these should you shoot.”

However, Hanna warned sternly against jumping to conclusions, given the current uncertainty about the details. “In such a critical situation, how can you have an opinion without facts? The shooting of the sheikh does not necessarily mean that the rules of engagement weren’t applied. What we lack so far is technical information of what really happened. Did the bodyguard of the sheikh fire on the army? I don’t know. So I think we have to wait and see the results of the investigation about possible weapons that were with the sheikh and his bodyguard.”

While such caution may well be wise, at this point the army seems to have accepted responsibility for the killing, describing the deceased in a statement as “victims” and expressing “deep regret” for the “mishap.”

According to Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of Dubai-based security think tank INEGMA, the army’s next move is of key importance, though it must act quickly and decisively. “The killing of the sheikh is a major setback to the army’s image and undermines its achievements over the past year. Having said that, if we see the army quickly apprehending, arresting and trying officers in accordance with the law […] this will act as a factor which will help restore confidence.”

An investigation into the incident began on Sunday, according to an army statement, but there have been calls, including by the Higher Islamic Council, for the investigation to be transferred to the Judicial Council, where it would be tried under civil law, rather than the military tribunal.

Although some have argued that the army is already taking sides in the conflict in Syria, for example by arresting and detaining regime dissenters who have fled across the border into Lebanon, Kahwaji disagrees. He did, however, express fears that the army may succumb to political destabilization. “The Lebanese cannot lose trust or give up on the military establishment. It is one of the very few—if not the only—state establishment which is to a large extent immune from the sectarian virus we have in the country. If the army splits, the country will disintegrate.”

Perhaps most dangerously, the Abdel Wahed shooting is likely to further sour relations between the army and the Sunni community as a whole. In a statement released Sunday, religious and political figures from the northern town of Minnieh said the killing “harms the army’s reputation and its relation with citizens in the North.” Hanna agrees, telling NOW that “There has been distrust ever since May 7, [2008],” when Hezbollah-aligned gunmen took over parts of mostly Sunni West Beirut and other areas of the country, without significant interference from the army. Hanna believes that Sunday’s events have only increased distrust among Sunnis toward the army and the wider security and intelligence apparatus. This distrust is especially pronounced in Akkar. However, he does not believe that recent events risk splitting the army, because “it is in no one’s interest to do so.”

In any event, the army will face substantial challenges in the coming weeks. Should it fail to deliver justice in Abdel Wahed’s case while also restoring the Sunni community’s faith in the institution in general, the prospects for a secure Lebanon will only deteriorate further.

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