Clashes between Lebanese protesters and supporters of the Shiite militant Hezbollah group are putting Lebanon’s military and security forces in a delicate position, threatening to crack open the country’s dangerous fault lines amid a political deadlock.
For weeks, the Lebanese security forces have taken pains to protect anti-government protesters, in stark contrast to Iraq, where police have killed more than 340 people over the past month in a bloody response to similar protests.
The overnight violence — some of the worst since protests against the country’s ruling elite began last month — gave a preview into a worst-case scenario for Lebanon’s crisis, with the country’s US-trained military increasingly in the middle between pro- and anti-Hezbollah factions.
By attacking protesters Sunday night, Hezbollah sent a message that it was willing to use force to protect its political power.
Confronting the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah, however, is out of the question for the military, as doing so would wreck the neutral position it seeks to maintain and could split its ranks.
“The army is in a difficult position facing multiple challenges and moving cautiously between the lines,” said Fadia Kiwan, professor of political science at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.
She said the military had sought to protect the protesters and freedom of expression but was increasingly grappling with how to deal with road closures and violence.
The UN Security Council urged all actors in Lebanon on Monday to engage in “intensive national dialogue and to maintain the peaceful character of the protests” by respecting the right to peaceful assembly and protest.
Calling this “a very critical time for Lebanon,” the UN’s most powerful body also commended Lebanon’s armed forces and state security institutions for their role in protecting the right to peaceful assembly and protest.