Should the West support the Lebanese army to counterweight Hezbollah?

LEBANESE ARMED FORCES soldiers are deployed after an ambush on Shi’ite mourners in Khaldeh, Lebanon, on Sunday, August 1, 2021. (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)

Written with Sarit Zehavi for the Jerusalem Post.

Lebanon is on the verge of collapse. There is little reason to believe the latest attempt to form a government will be different from past failures. The harsh reality is that no political or military decision in Lebanon can be made without Hezbollah’s approval.

Yet media reports have indicated that the US and France are considering expanding their military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces to counter Hezbollah’s ever-growing grip on the nation. The warnings of the commander of the LAF, claiming their soldiers have nothing to eat, did not fall upon deaf ears, and it seems that there is a desire to assist them.

This brings us to the question, should the US and France support a weakened LAF as a counterweight to Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah?

A July article in The Hill tried to make a case for continued American military assistance to the LAF, claiming that Hezbollah does not influence the LAF and the LAF command structure and special forces remain Western-oriented. The first claim is untrue, and the second may be more wishful thinking than reality.

In 2016, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated the LAF is a partner with the resistance (Hezbollah). In 2017, it was revealed that Yahya Husseini, a commanding officer in the LAF, was also a member of Hezbollah. Israel spotlighted this officer to highlight the widespread exploitation of Shi’ite LAF personal as Hezbollah operatives. In southern Lebanon today, there are joint patrols between the LAF and Hezbollah. Hezbollah members use LAF uniforms to disguise their activities, and the LAF allows Hezbollah to use their observation towers into Israel.

Over the past 15 years, there have been many instances of cooperation between the LAF and Hezbollah. These include assisting with the concealment of Hezbollah’s weapons from UNIFIL in southern Lebanon and collaboration between the two armies’ intelligence units.

Despite its relative weakness and the severe economic and political difficulties the LAF and the Lebanese people have faced, the LAF is still one of the last remaining institutions in Lebanon that the Lebanese people still support.

To understand the LAF, one needs to know that this multi-religious country with long-standing internal rivalries is supposed to be reflected in the demographics of its army. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in the number of Christian members in the military compared to Muslims (Shi’ites and Sunnis), with a shift towards Shi’ites, the religion of Hezbollah. Most LAF soldiers in southern Lebanon facing Israel are Shi’ites with likely sympathies for Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Christian and Sunni soldiers are sent to central and northern Lebanon, where there is less Hezbollah control.

So why should the West support the LAF? There is a case to be made for some assistance, but it is not clear-cut or compelling, one of those choices between the lesser of the two evils.

One answer is that ending financial support to the Lebanese Army would likely lead to its collapse and bring on civil war. That alone is a reason to keep the LAF intact, as the chaos that would follow would destabilize an already volatile region.

However, if you expect the LAF to be a counterweight to Hezbollah, you will be sorely disappointed. It would be a mistake to overestimate the strength of the LAF. It is unable and unwilling to confront Hezbollah. It will not fulfill its mandate to disarm Hezbollah or demilitarize the southern Lebanese border with Israel, a constant source of tension and potential for a major regional war.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 explicitly states that the area adjacent to Lebanon’s border with Israel must be “free of any army personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL… requiring the disarmament of all armed groups (Hezbollah)… no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.” The LAF is supposed to be responsible for enforcing this, but since the end of the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Lebanon in 2006, the LAF has done nothing to resist Hezbollah’s militarization of southern Lebanon.

In response to what is perceived as squandered American aid to the LAF, a bipartisan resolution in the US House of Representatives is being circulated that demands Lebanon’s adherence to UNSC 1701. The resolution calls for a report to demonstrate how American national security interests are advanced by assistance to the LAF and “how such assistance contributes to stability in the Middle East.”

For those advocating some assistance, they must not overstate their goals, which should be:

1. Keep the LAF from being completely turned into a vassal of Iran’s Hezbollah

2. Prevent the collapse of the Lebanese state by keeping the LAF functional

3. Keep America on the doorstep of Lebanon by supporting the LAF in case things change over time

4. Ensure LAF’s ethnic makeup (percentage of Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Christians) be honored

5. Verifiable mechanism to prevent LAF weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah

The reality is that Hezbollah is stronger than the state of Lebanon, both militarily and politically; taking advantage of the nation’s dysfunction to commandeer its financial resources, Hezbollah uses intimidation and violence to exert its power. It has a worldwide money laundering and drug network, extending from South America to Europe to support its terrorist infrastructure, not to mention its financial support from its patron, Iran.

Hezbollah will only grow in influence if the US ends sanctions on Iran as part of rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. Hezbollah uses its comprehensive civilian social services to replace Lebanon’s non-functioning services in a nation with massive debt and poverty, forcing Lebanese civilians to be indebted to Hezbollah.

If America and France choose to end military aid, Iran and Russia will fill the vacuum the West leaves behind. It is undoubtedly not optimal, but the assistance allows the West to stay in the game, especially with the future unpredictable and the possibility for some leverage down the road.

But the US must get more bang for its buck without expecting more than is possible at this time. The LAF cannot be an alternative to Hezbollah unless the Lebanese people rise and demand a change. It is impossible to expect the LAF to end its cooperation with Hezbollah completely or significantly slow the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah from Iran.

What types of aid will be helpful?

With chaos everywhere in Lebanon, providing riot-control armaments that cannot be used offensively against Israel should be considered. It must be assumed that every weapon given to the LAF can fall into the hands of Hezbollah or be used against the IDF if there will be war between Israel and Lebanon. US military and police trainers could work with the LAF to teach them how to protect protesters from agitators.

Humanitarian aid is needed, but it cannot be funneled through Hezbollah intermediaries. Since corruption is endemic in Lebanon, America and France should demand the right to monitor all monies transferred and verify the location of all weapons given. No compromises whatsoever should be made on this.

Managing expectations is the only way to justify American support to the LAF. Lebanon is a “state within the State of Hezbollah.” It is evident that even though there are areas in Lebanon in which Hezbollah is less present, no political or economic decision in Lebanon can be made without Hezbollah’s consent. So the aid given to the LAF must not be passed onto other parties. The US and France need to ensure that the LAF does not become an Iranian or Russian puppet or provide it with weapons.

But the choice to end support at this time will only strengthen Iran’s hold on the country. A good compromise would be to offer humanitarian aid but withhold any dual-purpose military assistance until the LAF delivers on some very modest demands.

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