As Lebanon seems inexorably dragged into the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – the bizarre saga of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation being the latest illustration – it is worth looking at the current state of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and questioning its ability to prevent any type of conflict escalation. Discussions on the LAF generally oppose two competing views. On the one hand, pessimists dismiss the LAF as a weak actor of Lebanese politics, cooperating with – if not infiltrated by – Hezbollah, while on the other hand, optimists emphasize both its latest progress at the warfighting level and its positive perception across communities in an increasingly polarized Lebanese society. Not surprisingly, the reality may be found somewhere in between.
Indeed, recent reports from the frontlines at the Syrian-Lebanese borders indicate a strong performance of the LAF that would not have been possible a few years ago. With the extension of the war in Syria, the LAF has been increasingly involved in border operations to contain cross-border clashes and dislodge jihadi groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Hayat Tahrir al Sham (previously known as Jabhat al Nusra). This confrontation between the LAF and extremist militants emerged in 2014 and steadily escalated since then. In late August 2017, a successful 10-day offensive codenamed ‘Dawn of the Jurds’ against IS, around Ras Baalbeck in the northeast of Lebanon, demonstrated the ability of LAF commanders to use effectively a combination of Special Forces, armored vehicles and close air support. In the words of a US military officer in Lebanon, this was ‘21st century maneuver warfare by a modern military’. For the supporters of the LAF, the operation reflected not only the professionalism of Lebanese soldiers but the existence of a viable option for Lebanon’s security which was not Hezbollah.
But sceptics point out – rightfully so – that the military institution remains also trapped in the inextricable politics of Lebanon, in particular vis-à-vis Hezbollah’s territorial control and increased firepower capacities. The fact is that casting aside its operational performance, the LAF is limited in its ability to position itself as the most legitimate – if not the unique – security provider inside Lebanon without entering a direct conflict with Hezbollah.
The Party of God is fully aware of this fragile equilibrium and plays with it at its full extent. Its Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, ambiguously portrayed the simultaneous campaigns of Hezbollah and the LAF at the Syrian border as common efforts to defeat terrorists targeting Lebanon. For Nasrallah, such assertion provides a convenient narrative to justify Hezbollah’s military interventions and to restore a semblance of its political legitimacy in Beirut. Additionally, the timing on the revelation – in the middle of the LAF campaign in Ras Baalbeck – of a deal brokered by Hezbollah and the Syrian government to allow a safe passage for IS militants towards Syria’s border with Iraq was clearly intended to undermine the international perceptions on the LAF efforts.
Negative perceptions of the LAF integrity and of its alleged proximity with Hezbollah can have dramatic effects on its international sponsors. This was one of the main reasons behind Saudi Arabia’s decision to cancel the Donas military aid program to Lebanon back in 2016. For a long time, the repeated allegations on the infiltration of the LAF by Hezbollah fighters have engendered frustration among officers who strove to enforce a military ethos based on professionalism and loyalty. Last August, in front of the most recent accusation of collusion with Hezbollah during the ‘Dawn of the Jurds’ offensive, commanders of the LAF admitted the coordination on the battlefield but argued that it was only meant to de-conflict between the fighting forces. This might make sense from a purely operational standpoint, but it does not address the perennial issues that have exhausted the international sponsors of the LAF.
The first issue relates to its social fabric: the LAF is not an actor but a product of the sectarian balance of power inside Lebanon. This means that the delicate equilibrium among Christians, Sunnis, and Shias (among the other smaller communities) that is typical of Lebanese politics can be observed at all levels inside the military bureaucracy, from the flag officers to the non-commissioned officers. As of today, there is no indication that the armed forces as a national institution is challenged from within by these sectarian affiliations. But historically, it was the politics of sectarianism that led to the collapse of the LAF during Lebanon’s civil war, not its performance nor its neutrality during the conflict. Therefore, because the LAF is a reflection of the sectarian balance of power, sustaining its social stability will eventually depend on the ability of the government in Beirut to avoid escalation, rather than on the strict preservation of a military ethos.
The second issue involves the geopolitical parameters shaping the development of the new LAF. Building the Lebanese army and turning it into a robust security provider was from its outset constrained by exogenous factors. The initial purpose of international aid to the LAF was clearly to transform it into, not only the legitimate, but the sole military force in the country. For the US – its primary donor – this was a delicate exercise: it meant providing resources and training without triggering a direct confrontation with Hezbollah and, at the same time, without challenging Israel’s qualitative edge – a golden rule for US defense cooperation programs with Arab countries closely scrutinized by the Congress. A compromise was therefore to focus the LAF missions on border security and fighting non-state threats. As demonstrated by the LAF campaign against IS, this objective appears rather successful. But if it constitutes a positive short-term outcome, it does not solve the long term predicaments of the LAF.
Finally, the Syrian war added a third issue. It changed the equation inside Lebanon between the LAF and Hezbollah as the latter also improved its warfighting effectiveness through its intervention alongside Bashar al Assad’s troops. Its combatants have acquired experience in the conduct of complex campaigns that involve urban warfare, joint ground-air operations with Syrian, Iranian and Russian militaries.
Meanwhile, the arsenal of ballistic missiles and rockets deployed by Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon has increased dramatically, with an inventory now at least ten times bigger than at the dawn of the 2006 war with Israel. This is where Syria’s conflict challenges the initial logic of strengthening the LAF: before the war and Hezbollah’s involvement, it was assumed that a stronger LAF would mean a weaker Hezbollah. The current balance of forces indicates that it is possible to see both organizations getting stronger without tilting the scales in favor of the LAF. In the end, the LAF’s successes in border security operations may also be the result of Hezbollah’s strategy of deliberately leaving these missions to the Lebanese military in order to concentrate on other more consequential missions. This would be nothing new: Hezbollah has applied the same approach with UNIFIL forces for the last decade, allowing them to patrol the south of the country as long as they did not disrupt its operational plans.
This leaves us with the most crucial question, for both the LAF and its international supporters: on the long term, is it possible to become a full military force without provoking an undesirable escalation with Hezbollah? The latter exploits this dilemma – and is likely to continue to do so – when necessary in occasional games of brinkmanship. This is why for all its significant achievements at the operational level, the LAF will remain strategically weak if it, or its international supporters do not find a way to change this equation.
Jean-Loup Samaan, Associate Professor in Strategic Studies at the UAE National Defense College of Abu Dhabi.
The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author. They do not reflect the views of the UAE National Defense College, or the government of the United Arab Emirates.
Quote from Aram Nerguizian, ‘The Lebanese Armed Forces, Hezbollah, and Military Legitimacy’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4 October 2017, p.3
Nicholas Blanford, ‘The Lebanese Armed Forces and Hezbollah’s competing offensives against Sunni militants’, CTC Sentinel, 21 September 2017.
Aram Nerguizian, op. cit., p.16.
Casey Addis, ‘U.S. Security Assistance to Lebanon’, Congressional Research Service, 19 January 2011, p.8.
Carla Humud, ‘Lebanon’, Congressional Research Service, 20 September 2017, p.2.
Marisa Sullivan, ‘Hezbollah in Syria’, Institute for the Study of War, April 2014; Matthieu Cimino, ‘Le Hezbollah et la guerre en Syrie’, Politique Etrangere, Vol.2, Summer 2016.
Jean-Loup Samaan, ‘Missile warfare and violent non-state actors: the case of Hezbollah’, Defence Studies, Vol. 17, No.2, 2017.