ZONE: Israeli Ally Looks Ahead : Israel’s Ally in Lebanon Sees ‘a Long War’
“I know it will be a long war,” said Gen. Antoine Lahad. “But I am serving the interests of Lebanon, even if most people don’t believe it.”
As Israel completes its troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the 56-year-old commander of the South Lebanon Army exudes confidence that his ragtag militia force will prove a worthy substitute for the Israelis, capable of safeguarding the strip of land just north of Israel’s border.
“The strength of the SLA is sufficient to maintain the peace and security of the area,” Lahad said in an interview here Monday. “Israel was not defeated in Lebanon. It was defeated in Israel. It was a political defeat.”
Nonetheless, Lahad may find that sustaining a military presence in the security zone created by Israel north of its frontier is at least as difficult for him as it was for the far more powerful Israeli army, according to Western military analysts.
“Without the Israeli presence, the SLA won’t mean anything,” one military observer in the area said.
But there is speculation in the region that Israel, despite saying it will withdraw completely except for a few military advisers and observers, plans to maintain a military presence of its own in southern Lebanon.
Lahad, who sports an immaculate dark green uniform and Italian-made ankle boots, is a retired Lebanese army general who took command of the militia in January last year after the death of Maj. Saad Haddad, who had founded what was then termed the “Free Lebanon Army” in 1978.
Lahad will not discuss the size of his militia, but Western military analysts believe that it includes a mobile force of about 500 to 600 men in addition to perhaps 400 soldiers organized into village militias. The latter are frequently elderly or very young.
This force is supported by about 40 aging Sherman and T-54 tanks supplied by the Israelis, who have outfitted the little army down to its shoes. The army also fields a variety of artillery.
Lahad, a Christian, said that about 60% of his troops are Christian and the remainder are Muslim and Druze. (The secretive Druze sect is an offshoot of Islam.) But the army’s support among Muslims has clearly eroded lately.
In a major embarrassment for Lahad last week, 26 of his soldiers were captured by a much smaller force of fighters from Amal, the Shia Muslim militia. According to the general, his troops, who also were Shias, defected without a fight.
4 to 7 Miles Deep
The security zone that the army will patrol has never been defined by either Israel or Lahad, but it is believed to encompass a strip of land between four and seven miles deep and stretching the length of Israel’s frontier with Lebanon, with a bulge running north to an area south of the Christian town of Jezzine and north of the town of Hasbayya near the Syrian border.
As Lahad sees it, without his army in position, the Israeli army would never have been able to withdraw from southern Lebanon. Thus, he believes, his militia is sparing the area a prolonged military occupation.
“Our purpose is to keep the area safe from terrorist attacks,” he said. “It is not to protect Israeli territory. Lebanon has always paid a high price for these attacks, and we are here to prevent the Israeli army from having to return.”
Lahad is clearly dismayed at his image in the Lebanese and international press, which describes him in unflattering terms such as “stooge” and as a puppet of Israel. “We are not the proxies of Israel,” he said, “though we do receive logistical support from Israel.”
A New Alignment
In recent days, there has been considerable speculation that a new alignment of forces in the area may be under way as a result of the clashes between Amal and Palestinian guerrillas in three refugee camps outside Beirut.
News agencies have quoted government sources in Jerusalem as saying that Israel will ultimately want Amal to take charge of security in the border area even if this means doing away with Lahad’s South Lebanon Army.
“I don’t expect the Israeli government to act against its own interest,” Lahad said. “I expect the Israeli government to keep its assistance flowing to us. If this situation changes, then we will have to see what we will do next.”
Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal, has rejected any formal arrangement with Israel, which wants security guarantees, and has called for a confrontation with Lahad’s force.
“We declare as of now that a decision has been taken for a qualitative change in the fight in the border strip should Lahad and his forces remain,” Berri said. “Orders have been given for uprisings in the (Shia Muslim) border villages that will be reinforced with Amal military support from outside the border strip for the recovery of all our villages.”
Decision to Withdraw
Lahad scoffs at suggestions that Amal is militarily strong in the southern region, saying he believes that Islamic fundamentalists and Communists carried out most of the deadly raids against the Israelis that ultimately led to the decision to withdraw.
In addition to their problems with Amal, Lahad and his men have already had several confrontations with the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the area. Lahad is demanding freedom of movement for his troops, but the U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, has refused to recognize his army as a legal military force.
“If we give in to them, we have to give in to every other armed element in the region, and we know what that means,” a U.N. spokesman said.