BEIRUT (AFP) – A chorus of calls for an “arms-free” Beirut triggered by a deadly battle outside a mosque last week is fast fading after Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement warned against any attempt to disarm it.
After an August 24 gunfight between supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and those of Sunni faction Al-Ahbash — two loosely allied Syrian-backed parties — Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri launched a campaign calling for Beirut to be stripped of its omnipresent weapons.
But Hezbollah has cautioned the Hariri camp against raising the issue of its huge arsenal.
“As usual, the situation is very, very precarious on all levels,” said Sahar Atrache, Middle East and North Africa analyst at the Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group.
“Having these weapons spread everywhere is alarming, especially as security and stability in Lebanon are clearly not under control,” Atrache told AFP.
“And again, what we do in Lebanon is try to handle the immediate consequences of the situation, and not the overall situation.”
Last week’s four-hour street battle in the west Beirut district of Burj Abi Haidar began as a row over a parking space but swiftly escalated with the use of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The violence raised fears of a repeat of May 2008, when gunmen supporting a Hezbollah-led alliance clashed with supporters of the Sunni prime minister.
Close to 100 people died in the week-long battle which saw the Hezbollah camp seize control of much of mainly Sunni west Beirut.
A slew of ministers and security officials met this week in a bid to forge an agreement on arms control in the capital, but failed to announce what measures, if any, the state would take.
“Can we afford all these weapons in Lebanon?” Hariri said late on Wednesday.
“Addressing this issue means we need to recognise the existence of these arms across Lebanon,” he said, adding that 1,500 soldiers had been deployed across the capital.
Hariri’s comments were the latest in a harsh exchange of words between his Saudi-backed bloc and the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, sparked by the Burj Abi Haidar clash.
“It is unacceptable that anyone go too far in their initiatives, which have no point but to complicate internal politics and increase mistrust among Lebanese,” Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad said.
Hezbollah is the only Lebanese faction that retained its arsenal after the 1975-1990 civil war.
The Shiite party, which has two ministers in the government, argues its weapons are necessary to defend Lebanon against Israel with which it fought a devastating war in 2006.
The prime minister’s camp for its part has backpedalled on its insistence on Beirut as an arms-free zone.
“The resistance (Hezbollah) is aimed at Israel. Arms in back alleys cannot be part of the arms of the resistance,” MP Ammar Houry of Hariri’s bloc told AFP on Wednesday.
“But it is not us who will translate this notion into action. It is up to the army command to decide how to act from here on.”
And while analysts doubt that Beirut will ever be a city with effective state arms control, rapprochement between regional powers Syria and Saudi Arabia, which back Lebanon’s two rival blocs, can at least help contain the situation.
“Beirut, like Lebanon, will not be arms-free but… the Burj Abi Haidar incident might be a way to pressure Hezbollah to reduce its presence in Beirut, especially in Sunni neighbourhoods… and give the army support to play a moderately stronger role,” said Paul Salem, who heads the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“This effort is probably enjoying backing from Syria and Saudi Arabia,” Salem added.
“I think this is significant not because it’s going to remove all arms from Beirut but because it might shift the way the city is handled a bit, between its politics and its weapons.”