Most Americans are unaware of the phrase “War Between the Wars.” It describes Israel’s low-grade war with Iran, Hezbollah and Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria to stop Iran from transforming “Syria and Iraq into missile-launching pads,” as it has in Lebanon. The goal is to prevent a permanent Iranian presence on Israel’s doorstep with advanced weaponry that could tip the scales against Israel’s qualitative military edge.
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.
How did we reach a point where America’s most important ally in the Middle East is forced to deal with Russia if it wants to act against Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in Lebanon and Syria? Today, all of the Middle East’s major players, from Iran to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Israel, know that Russia is the “go-to mediator” that has relations across the region’s ideological spectrum and can successfully navigate between opposing sides.
As Jonathan Spyer wrote in the Jerusalem Post, Russia “maintains open channels …with the main players …which the United States has chosen through weariness or other priorities to keep absent. … [Russia is] comfortable in the environment of frozen conflicts and divided countries. … Under Biden [the U.S.] shows no signs of wanting to come roaring back to major commitments in the region.”
America has outsourced its foreign policy in the Middle East to Russia, which has forced Israel to change its approach to its most imminent threat from its northern Iranian front in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. With American financial help for its anti-missile systems and Israel’s essential intelligence-gathering to advance American national security interests, the U.S. and Israel are indispensable allies. Beyond that, there is little America can do, or is willing to do, since it has decided not to be an active player in the Levant.
The relationship between Israel and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a complex cat-and-mouse game, in which Russia winks and allows Israel to strike its erstwhile allies — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Iranian-controlled militias. Yet, Russian interests demand that it also keeps those entities in control of Syria and Lebanon to solidify the crucial gains it attained by supporting the Syrian civil war’s winning side. Russia’s Syria victory allowed it to expand and upgrade its Tartus seaport on the Mediterranean Sea, a warm water port that expands its regional influence toward Europe. Add to that its upgraded Khmeimim Air Base near the Syrian city of Latakia, and Russia is as much a victor as Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the former head of research for the Israel Defense Force Military Intelligence Division, retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, “Everyone understands that Israel isn’t acting against the Syrian regime [as long as it is not] doing anything that jeopardizes Russian interests. Russia appears to be giving Israel a free hand against game-changing technology transfers from Iran, as long as it plays by its rules.”
How did Russia become the most influential force in the region?
The die was cast nearly 10 years ago when former President Obama allowed his chemical weapons “red line” to be crossed, choosing not to militarily respond to Assad’s use of sarin gas that killed 1,400 civilians. Instead, Obama chose to abandon Syria and turn over the removal of chemical weapons to Putin, who was more than willing to accept the invitation as a path to becoming the dominant power in the Levant. The Obama administration apparently was convinced that turning Syria over to the Russians would be analogous to America’s experience with Vietnam. Russia thanked Obama and immediately proceeded to change the Syrian war in favor of Iran and Syria.
According to The Atlantic, “Obama’s failure to follow through on (his) threat … has continued to haunt America’s involvement in the Syrian tragedy. The subsequent U.S.-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal did not prevent the horror of April 4  when … Assad’s forces mounted a new sarin attack on civilians. … The agreement and its implementation mechanism were deeply flawed.”
Israel’s long-term plan of playing Iranian Whac-a-Mole — hitting game-changing military targets as they emerge throughout Syria, Iraq and Lebanon — needs Putin’s consent. Israel’s continuing air campaign must be coordinated with the Russian military to avoid its accidentally targeting Israeli aircraft. Neither Israel nor Russia would like Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft system to shoot down an Israeli jet aircraft, or worse, to force Israel to target a Russian missile system in response. That would be a diplomatic disaster. Syrian anti-aircraft destroyed a Russian plane during an alleged Israeli missile strike in 2018.
The unspoken “quid pro quo” between Israel and Russia is that Israel must settle for half a loaf. It can attack Iranian proxies and their advanced missile facilities, but it must accept a permanent Iranian presence and influence in Syria, just as it has in Lebanon with Hezbollah. In 2017, Russian promises to keep Iran and its proxies 53 miles away from the Israeli Golan evaporated almost from the moment they were uttered.
Russian pronouncements regarding Israeli actions in Syria and Lebanon are decidedly hostile. According to Newsweek, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov said, “Israel is attacking Hezbollah; Hezbollah is not attacking Israel. … The problem is Israel, not the Iranians. … There is no way we are approving any Israeli strikes on Syria.” But so far, it’s more Russian bluster than any tangible action inhibiting Israeli actions in Lebanon and Syria.
Israel knows the address is Moscow if it wants to advance its interests and attempt to minimize Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Watching Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Hezbollah’s Lebanese parliament leader Mohammad Raad be given equal access and respect in Moscow this month must have turned a few Israeli stomachs. Then again, Russia is no angel — it delights in any opportunity to diminish the United States.
The status quo in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq won’t last forever. Iran could turn the screws on Israel at any time if it senses weakness or military advantage. With American willingness to return to the Iranian nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Israel could decide at some point to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, prompting a massive Iranian directed attack emanating from Syria or Lebanon. The likelihood that the situation on Israel’s northern border would spiral out of control over the next decade is high. However, Israel and Russia share an interest in not letting things escalate. Russia wants to solidify its gains, and Israel would like to avoid the costs of a major war with Iran.
If Israel’s northern Iranian border gets hot, some would argue that it is in American interests to actively engage in diplomacy to quiet the situation. The last time the U.S. worked with Russia on the northern border, the U.S. trusted Putin to keep Iran from permanently entrenching itself on Syria’s border with Israel. As with chemical weapons, Russia held the cards and did as it pleased, making America look impotent to its allies and enemies alike. With both Democrats and Republicans eager to get the U.S. out of the Middle East, Israel is left to deal with Russia for the foreseeable future.