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Alex Rowell

March 14 scrambles
to keep top security ally

Internal Security Forces head Major General Ashraf Rifi

In an abrupt departure from wrangling over electoral laws, MPs from the Future Movement along with their March 14 allies and Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party have made urgent attempts this week to pass a draft law that would raise the mandatory retirement age for top security officials, several of whom would otherwise be forced to step down later this year.

 

These officials include 59-year-old army chief General Jean Qahwaji and Internal Security Forces (ISF) head Major General Ashraf Rifi, who will turn 59 in April – the maximum age for the post. The draft law would extend both men’s terms for another three years.

 

President Michel Suleiman submitted the bill to cabinet on Thursday. Rifi himself expressed doubts Friday that it would pass cabinet, saying it “needs the approval of two thirds of the ministers and this is not possible because more than half of them object to an extension of my term.” Both Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), who collectively occupy 9 out of 30 seats, have explicitly opposed the proposal, arguing the government should appoint successors to the posts. Should Rifi’s extension be rejected and a successor not appointed, Rifi indicated his deputy Brigadier General Roger Salem would replace him – though Salem, himself, is due to reach retirement age this year. Rifi could not be reached for comment.

 

The loss of Rifi would be taken by March 14 as a significant setback. Though the movement’s leaders have officially touted the draft law as a non-partisan move to preserve national stability, few observers are in doubt that their priority is keeping Rifi in place, and indeed one Future MP admitted as much to NOW.

 

“After the [October 19, 2012] assassination of [ISF Information Branch head Brigadier General] Wissam al-Hassan, our security is exposed to many factors and parties, and Rifi is bravely filling his station,” said MP Ahmad Fatfat. “We trust Rifi and need him in this position. If someone is trying to move Rifi away, then he is definitely part of the assassination process, and he wants us as March 14 to be exposed,” he added, in a likely reference to Hezbollah and the FPM.

 

“Even Jumblatt is feeling the need for this extension,” added Fatfat, referring to the former March 14 firebrand (and long-rumored assassination target) whose party now has three ministers in the March 8-aligned cabinet. Echoing the official March 14 line, Jumblatt says his support for Rifi’s extension derives from general security concerns. 

 

Rifi’s close ties to March 14, and the Future Movement in particular, have long been something of an open secret. “There’s a certain balance in security, based on the fact that some institutions are controlled by March 8 and others are controlled by March 14,” said former Tripoli MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. “[Rifi] is one of the main people representing [March 14].”

 

This is further borne out in the US embassy cables leaked in 2010, which generally portray Rifi as a determined opponent of the Syrian regime and its key Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. The cables also make clear that he sees himself and the ISF he helped build as locked in a “race against time” to neutralize the threats he believes these parties pose to Lebanon. Former US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman wrote of the ISF’s “connections to [Future Movement leader] Saad Hariri and its heavily Sunni (i.e., essentially anti-Hizballah [sic]) officer ranks.” Such ‘connections’ may even be military – one cable from 2008 quotes Jumblatt claiming that Rifi was assisting Hariri in amassing a 15,000-strong militia. In the same year, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea also reportedly told former US Chargé d'affaire Michele Sison that both he and Jumblatt were trying to buy ammunition from Rifi for their own militias.

 

Whatever the exact nature of Rifi’s ties to March 14, the bloc evidently deems him an invaluable asset – a fact which analysts say reflects the top-heavy structure of Lebanese security institutions in general.

 

“This demonstrates the continuing importance of individual authorities within the Lebanese security architecture,” said Elias Muhanna, assistant professor at Brown University and author of the Qifa Nabki blog. “There is no such thing as institutional memory in these intelligence branches; the inner circle is extremely small and therefore extremely valuable.”

 

Indeed, this heavy reliance on individuals is a key weakness of the system that requires reform, according to Ahdab.

 

“I think this all needs to be reviewed,” he told NOW. “Because prolonging the mandate for Rifi also means maintaining the same security structure and renewing other [security] positions. So the question is do we want to renew this, or would we like to change it?”

 

“Of course, we’d like to change it. Perhaps the timing is not right. But definitely this is not the solution; this is prolonging a situation where the state is absolutely losing ground and not controlling what is happening.”

 

“We saw that starting in Tripoli, and now it’s spreading all over Lebanon.”

 

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

The security chief’s ties to the March 14 movement have long been an open secret (Source: AFP/Joseph Eid)

"Though the movement’s leaders have officially touted the draft law as a non-partisan move to preserve national stability, few observers are in doubt that their priority is keeping Rifi in place, and indeed one Future MP admitted as much to NOW."