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Who ordered the crackdown in downtown Beirut?

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L’Orient-Le Jour interviewed several experts in security and military affairs who found it quite difficult to unravel the complex web of the different services involved, their operations and responsibilities.


23/12/2019

The unprecedented crackdown on the protest movement in downtown Beirut over the past weekend has raised questions about the rationale for resorting to such disproportionate violence after two months of relatively peaceful protests. The outgoing Interior Minister, Raya el-Hassan, admitted that "mistakes have been made", and demanded an investigation.

Faced with the multitude of State organizations and authorities responsible for maintaining security and order, several questions have risen: how are the security operations coordinated on the ground? Who decides on the transition from a simple law enforcement operation to more muscular measures, and which departments are responsible for implementing those measures? As proof of the subject’s complexity and sensitivity, as well as of the general sense of vagueness surrounding it, L’Orient-Le Jour interviewed several experts in security and military affairs, all of whom found it difficult to disentangle the complex web surrounding the operations.

In the downtown area, three separate security services were at work last weekend: the riot brigade of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the parliamentary police, and the army. The three institutions’ methods, training and institutional culture differ radically from one another, making it difficult to coordinate their respective tasks.


A police force fully dedicated to its leader
The parliamentary police, which many protesters have often highlighted as having been particularly involved in the suppression of the demonstrators, is an entity independent of the rest of the police, and that operates according to an unconventional structure and hierarchy. “The parliamentary guard company is composed of grouped sections and an inquiry unit and consists of some 240 personnel. The unit serves to protect the area around the Lebanese parliament.

The parliamentary guard company – along with the presidency of the council of ministers company, the presidential guard company and the reserve guard company, which are separate units – technically reports to the ISF Commander of the Security of Embassies, Establishments and Public Administrations. The Commander, in turn, reports to the Director General of the ISF, who reports to the Minister of Internal Municipalities.

This is technically the chain of command. In practice, according to sources in the Lebanese security services, the parliamentary guard company is reported to be overwhelmingly manned by Shia’ personnel who are de facto chosen by – and are believed to be loyal to – Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri”, said Aram Nerguizian, the Senior Advisor to the Program on Relations Between Civilians and the Military in the Arab States at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

In fact, a former army officer claims that the parliamentary police are pooling troops, chosen on an individual basis by the Speaker of the House, Nabih Berry, who sifts through them in order to ensure their loyalty. Its members receive their salaries from the Parliament and "an additional monthly remuneration from Mr. Berry", the source claimed. It is the Speaker of the House who decides on promotions on "a completely discretionary basis", said the former officer. This is how Youssef Dimachq (aka Abu Khachbe), was promoted to the rank of general and was given command of the unit.

Members of the parliamentary police, who wear the ISF uniform, "a decision also made arbitrarily" according to a former security official, are often confused with ISF units. It is therefore difficult to distinguish between ISF personnel and those of the parliamentary police. “They are not usually even allowed to circulate in uniform outside the immediate perimeter of the Parliament, which they are supposed to guard", added the aforementioned source. While the majority of the members of the parliamentary police are Shiites -most of whom are former members of the Amal movement-, there are also a few Christians, mostly from southern Lebanon. The parliamentary police are assisted by a unit of soldiers detached from the army as well as a unit of the ISF, both assigned to the protection of Parliament. While these two units answer -administratively speaking- to their respective hierarchies, they are both overseen by "two Shiite commanders who operate with the consent of the Speaker of the House", said two military experts. This complex state of affairs adds another dose of confusion to an already muddled security backdrop.

"Nabih Berry has put in place a personal, tailored-made structure. A type of structure that has inserted itself within the legal forces. In short, it [the parliamentary police] is unquestionably a real militia which has total loyalty to the Head of Parliament", said a retired army officer. The situation, Mr. Nerguizian says, is "difficult to verify". "The whole question is about knowing to which security authority this hybrid unit is accountable for its actions, and what its rules of engagement are", added a military expert.


The ISF’s responsibility
Last weekend, in downtown Beirut, the riot brigade of the ISF was deployed alongside the parliamentary police. This brigade is a unit specifically trained to maintain public order and protect State property in the event of disturbances. It is part of the ISF Command and reports to General Director Imad Othman. This brigade, which includes 1,200 personnel spread over 20 divisions, is responsible in particular for the protection of the Prime Minister’s home, his offices (the Seray) and the Ministry of the Interior. It is also tasked with intervening in the event of riots, says an expert. To this end, it is equipped with tear gas canisters, crowd control weapons and batons. "The use of this military gear is generally done gradually, according to certain rules of engagement. The scale of the violence must be proportional to the assessment of the situation. Usually, the tactic is to alternate escalation and de-escalation as soon as the tension drops a notch", said a military expert. Dispatched to the scene on Saturday and Sunday, with the use of a lot of tear gas, these brigades tried to prevent violent spillovers. The violence directed toward the protesters, especially on Saturday evening, was strongly denounced not only by the protesters themselves, but also by the outgoing Minister of the Interior. It is this criticism that explains the surprise on the ground tour conducted by the director of the ISF the next day. The ISF were held responsible for the beatings that took place, however, a large number of the parliamentary police, supported by civilians armed with sticks, were also involved in the violence and there was a lack of coordination regarding decisions made between the two units. If the use of tear gas and rubber bullets is officially allowed during unrest, beatings on the other hand, or the persistent harassment of protesters -which is often a spontaneous reaction on the part of a single police officer- are certainly not officially sanctioned or tolarated to the same degree. "The commanding officer does not give orders to beat people up. This action comes from the armed individuals, along with their ability to control themselves and cope with pressure", said a former army officer who insisted that managing chaos is an extremely difficult task, especially when the police are at the point of exhaustion and have been under continuous pressure for more than two months. “It should not be forgotten that the policeman is also afraid for his own safety. He is also scared of failing in his mission", notes the former military man, who notes that several members of the riot brigade were also injured.


The sensitive role of the army

The army, which was also present during the clashes in downtown Beirut, did not take part in the confrontation with the protestors. It limited itself with playing the role of a buffer and tried to protect a part of the demonstrators - the most peaceful ones at least. This rather secondary role can be explained by the fact that the troops are neither trained nor equipped to deal with riots of this magnitude, according to an expert. Another factor that needs to be taken into account is that the downtown Beirut area, which has been the scene of serious incidents in recent days, "is a nerve center that links the Shiite district of Khandak el-Ghamik, to the Parliament, the House of the Prime Minister, and the Christian area of Ashrafieh. This makes any intervention by the army, which has played a balancing role since the start of this revolt, both sensitive and difficult", said an observer.

“As per my piece for Carnegie (“The Military in the Middle”) the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are doing as much as they can to stay out of the kinds of deployments that lead to violence. The objective is to buy time and remain credible in the eyes of the public at large until a political way forward takes shape”, said Mr. Nerguizian.

Several military sources have confirmed Nerguizian’s belief, that, generally, the centralization of operations is supposed to be the army’s responsibility , but that practically and certainly in this specific case, "it was the director of the ISF who was responsible for the centralization of operations for which he ultimately assumed full responsibility, insofar as it is the riot brigade which constitutes the main force in charge of this mission", said a former army officer. “Normally, the hierarchy should be clearer and the coordination more effective. But that was not the case during the downtown incidents", said a military expert. "Coordination between the riot brigade and the army was very meticulous. However, this was not the case with the Parliament’s police”, said a source close to the Ministry of Interior.

“Usually, that kind of coordination works well with some oversight from LAF Command. However, in practical terms, the LAF does not have command and control over, or the ability to override units outside the LAF and its chain of command,” said Nerguizian. "In the case of the violence that has occurred in the city center, it is difficult to speak of credible coordination between the various security services", concluded the expert.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 19th of December)

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