Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Free Lebanese Army?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Though rejected by the Sunni establishment, the idea is endorsed by extremists.

Sunni fighters on the ground in Bab al-Tabbaneh on Wednesday (AFP)
Following a week of pronounced anxieties in Lebanon brought on by the kidnapping of 20 Syrians and a Turkish national by the self-described “military wing” of the influential Shiite Moqdad clan, Tuesday’s reports of the formation of a “Sunni military council” by a prominent Tripoli Salafist—echoing calls in May for the creation of a “Free Lebanese Army”—had many in the country fearing the worst.

Those fears now look to have been somewhat misplaced, as Sheikh Salem al-Rafei—the cleric said to have announced the formation during his Friday sermon—appears to have backtracked amid near-unanimous condemnation of the idea from the Sunni establishment. “All of the officials and sons of Tripoli reject the idea of forming military councils,” said Future bloc MP Mohammad Kabbara on Wednesday after discussing the issue with Rafei. Similarly, the Tripoli mufti, Sheikh Malek Shaar, categorically ruled it out on Friday, while Future bloc MP Ahmad Fatfat called Thursday for “turning Tripoli into an arms-free city.” Rafei himself declined to talk to NOW Lebanon about the matter, though he has told NOW in the past that he too advocates an arms-free Tripoli.

At the same time, some of the more hardline Sunni Islamists have openly and enthusiastically endorsed the idea. Despite telling NOW in June that he opposed all non-state weapons, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, the former UK leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir and founder of Salafist-Jihadist outfits al-Muhajiroun and Islam4UK, now says, “I support the establishment of a military council for the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh […] not just in the North, but in the wider region. Everyone has weapons in Lebanon: the Internal Security Forces, the army, Hezbollah, Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Palestinians. It is only the Sunnis who are without arms. So when Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir’s demands [to rid the country of non-state weapons] were not met, we had to say that we will arm ourselves in return.”

When contacted for comment, Assir was equivocal, ostensibly rejecting the military council idea while not materially differing from Bakri’s position. “In no way are we creating a military council, nor do we approve of it,” he told NOW. “What Rafei meant was that in case the government cannot protect us, we will have to take measures to protect ourselves.”

Bakri made no such evasions. Asked to explain how the council would function in practice, he asserted its activities would not be aggressive. “It will not be formed to face a certain group or party but only for self-defense and as a contingency in the event of an attack. We have seen the army’s failure to carry out its duty of putting an end to the [Moqdad] kidnappings. Also consider that Syrian tanks are shelling our borders and are entering certain areas constantly and making arrests. The military council is a reaction and is not an organization or party, nor does it aim to replace the state or the army.”

Sheikh Nabil Rahim, who was arrested in 2008 on charges of belonging to Fatah al-Islam, essentially agreed with Bakri, although he claimed that Rafei’s original proposal was non-sectarian. “I listened to the statements of Sheikh Rafei, and he said there should be a military council for all sects, including Shiites, Christians and Sunnis. We are with the state and the army, but this is in self-defense in case they cannot provide protection for their citizens,” he told NOW.

In any case, for actual fighters on the ground in Tripoli, these debates may be largely academic. A Sunni militiaman from the Qobbeh neighborhood who preferred not to be named scoffed when asked about the military council, dismissing it as a rhetorical retort to the “military wing” of the Moqdads. Though Rafei is held in high esteem in Tripoli, and could certainly mobilize militants if he wished, the idea of a formally structured paramilitary outfit for all Sunnis in Lebanon was fantasy, he told NOW.

Moreover, as the tragic re-eruptions of violence in the city over the past week have amply demonstrated, the Sunnis of Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh have already had a de facto militia for quite some time. In the words of the Qobbeh fighter, “What difference does it make if we call it a ‘military council’ now?”

Bassem Nemeh, Assem Bazzi and Nadine Elali contributed reporting.

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