BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s army might be shackled by fear of civilian casualties as it battles Islamist militants at a Palestinian refugee camp, but its failure to defeat them quickly has exposed its lack of equipment and combat experience.
Elite army units have been trying to crush a few hundred Fatah al-Islam fighters at Nahr al-Bared camp in north Lebanon since May 20. At least 136 people have died in the fighting, including 60 soldiers. More than 150 soldiers have been wounded.
The army says the al Qaeda-inspired militants must surrender or die. Fatah al-Islam has vowed to fight to the end.
Leaders across Lebanon’s political spectrum have voiced support for the military in the Nahr al-Bared battle, a far cry from the 1975-1990 civil war when the army was first hampered by politicians and then fragmented by sectarian divisions.
But the military has no effective air force, ageing tanks and limited firepower. Its soldiers have had little combat experience since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Fear of inflicting civilian casualties and destroying a camp that usually houses 40,000 refugees has also forced the army to use what firepower it has with care, politicians and some analysts say.
Timur Goksel, a former adviser to a U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, said the army could not go all out against the camp in a campaign it has portrayed as a fight to eliminate a dangerous group alien to Palestinians and Lebanese alike.
“What happens to the army if it destroys the camp? How many civilians would you have to kill?” Goksel asked.
“The Lebanese army can’t afford that internally because of the tremendous upheaval (it would cause) in the country, not only with Palestinians but also among the government.”
The army has not entered a Palestinian refugee camp since a 1969 Arab agreement banned it from doing so.
Residents still cowering in the shattered camp might find it hard to believe the army is going easy. They say shells have hit every street and alley, destroying hundreds of homes.
The militants have fought ferociously, hitting back with often deadly mortar and grenade attacks on army posts. Their snipers have also inflicted heavy losses on the soldiers.
Goksel said the 55,000-strong army would eventually defeat the militants, but that this could not disguise its frailties.
“It is very poorly equipped. It is a very poor army, no doubt about it,” Goksel told Reuters, noting weaknesses in basics such as transport and communications. Some frontline soldiers have been seen communicating with mobile telephones.
The army was reunited after the civil war. But it was not rearmed because of what some officials say was an unofficial U.S.-imposed blockade because the army was cooperating with anti-Israeli Hezbollah guerrillas and Syrian forces in Lebanon.
The status of the army and its role changed again after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and the subsequent pullout of Syrian forces from the country.
Last year the government sent 15,000 troops to police the south alongside an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force after the July-August war between Hezbollah and Israel. It deployed another 8,000 soldiers to monitor the border with Syria.
After the war, the army also had to carry out delicate internal security functions without falling foul of either side in a fierce political battle between the Western-backed government and the pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies.
Its neutrality added to its credibility. Once the battles in north Lebanon began, the United States and its Arab allies sent plane-loads of ammunition, boots and helmets.
For some, the army’s most striking achievement has been its cohesion under stress. “They held together, they are still the national army under a unified command and control,” Goksel said.
Lebanon’s armed forces, dwarfed by those of neighboring Israel and Syria, have no fixed-wing aircraft.
Its air force consists of 33 helicopters — 24 ageing U.S.-built UHMs and nine French Gazelle helicopters. Only two of the Gazelles are combat ready. They were supplied this year by the United Arab Emirates, a security source said.
It has 260 artillery pieces and 240 battle tanks, including 60 U.S.-made M-48s and 180 Soviet-built T-54s, T-55s and T-56s — all produced some 50 years ago. It has about 1,000 armored troop carriers, mainly U.S.-made M-113s.
“Our divisions have limited technical fighting capabilities but here we appreciate the courage of the troops,” said opposition leader and former army commander Michel Aoun.
“What we are facing (at Nahr al-Bared) is not attrition but a slow approach... It won’t last long, no one need to worry.”