from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Problem of the Lebanese Army

February 23, 2017

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Should the United States be giving military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)? According to the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon (speaking last summer),  "In this year alone we provided over $221 million in equipment and training to the Lebanese security forces." That number presumably includes aid to Lebanon’s police and Internal Security Forces, but given the small size of the country it is a hefty sum.

Lebanon is a friendly country, an ally against jihadi groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, and a sort of democracy. But it is also the home of the terrorist group Hezbollah, which largely dominates its politics and makes its democracy a sometime thing. It’s fair to say that nothing happens in Lebanon without Hezbollah’s approval, no matter how elections turn out.

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Lebanon’s new president is legitimizing Hezbollah’s military role--which is independent from control by the Lebanese state (despite repeated UN Security Council resolutions demanding that there be no militias in Lebanon outside state control). The collaboration between Hezbollah and the LAF may be growing: a Times of Israel article on February 12 about the Lebanon/Israel border area said "On the Israeli side, officials are following, almost in astonishment, the deepening cooperation between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah." Lebanese President Michel Aoun responded by saying of Hezbollah “As long as the Lebanese army is not strong enough to battle Israel … we feel the need for its existence.” When Israel’s UN envoy wrote to the UN Security Council about Hezbollah violations of resolutions concerning Lebanon, the response from Aoun’s office was "Any attempt to hurt Lebanese sovereignty or expose the Lebanese to danger will find the appropriate response."

So, Aoun appears to be defining Hezbollah’s interests as Lebanon’s interests, and defining Hezbollah not as a militia whose existence clearly violates UN Security Council resolutions but rather as a necessary defense against Israel. In fact he said more: that Hezbollah is needed to "battle" Israel.

Such rhetoric may be dismissed as a price the Christian president must pay, if it is only rhetoric. More dangerous is the news that cooperation between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army may be increasing. In this context, should U.S. aid to the LAF continue? I find it a difficult question. Stopping the aid might only further weaken the LAF, which is not under Hezbollah command--though it certainly refuses to confront the terrorist group. The commander of the LAF is always a Christian and the chief of staff is always a Druze, and the Global Security web site suggests that Shia Lebanese "comprise 25% of the enlisted ranks. At the same time, the Army was able to bring the Christians to 25% and the Sunni/Druze component to 50% of the enlisted ranks."  It can be argued that weakening the LAF could further weaken non-Hezbollah influence in Lebanon.

If it is true that LAF-Hezbollah cooperation is increasing, the United States should demand that that trend be halted and reversed. It is one thing for the LAF to refuse to confront Hezbollah, and quite another to assist it in any way. Our aid should give us the leverage to achieve that much. My own bottom line for now is that we should not end aid to the LAF, but should make it very clear that this aid is in danger. Lebanese officials must come to realize that even if the withholding of aid weakens the LAF, that’s the inevitable outcome unless they keep farther away from Hezbollah than current trends appear to suggest.

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