By Thomas C. Barton For much of the nation’s history, Lebanon’s army played a secondary role to the countries sectarian militias and occupying forces. In recent years, the army has gained new strength as it tackles the threat of insurgency from across the Syrian border as well as at home.
Analysts have estimated that as a result of foreign military aid, the firepower of the army has increased by 30-40% in recent years and has played a substantial role in securing the North-Eastern region of the country. The threat of civil war in Lebanon as a result of the Syrian civil war has not been unsubstantial. One in four people living in Lebanon is now suspected to by a refugee from the conflict, a fact that threatens to upset the delicate sectarian balance and plunge the country back into civil war. The army’s success in containing this threat continues to be one of the few bulwarks against this reality.
At the founding of the country, Lebanon’s military was kept weak as a result of the confessionalist system on which the country's politics were built. The threat that the military would become a tool of suppression against the many by the few (as has been shown across the region) led leaders to maintain sectarian militias who could assure the protection of their own groups at the cost of a weak national defence force.
The risk of such a policy became clear as the Muslim and Christian population constantly disagreed about Lebanon’s place in the region in the wake of crises such as the Suez Canal crisis, the Arab Cold war, and position of Israel and Palestine over the southern border. The influx of Palestinians and the PLO after Black September forced them out of Jordan brought this to a head, when concerns that the now growing Muslim population and the new Palestinian “state within a state,” would lead to attempts to overthrow the government as and suppress the Christian population.
The army’s weakness and the inability of the government to agree a cohesive policy made them unable to prevent the civil war and throughout its fifteen years would mean the army was largely on the side-lines, forced into a position of neutrality that neutered their ability to act as the militias fought and occupying forces from Syria and Israel attempted to bring calm to, or exploit, the country.
As the civil war ended and armed militant groups were forced to disarm with the promise of immunity (with the exception of Hezbollah, who continued to operate as a “resistance force” against Israel in the south), the Syrian occupation continued until 2005, preventing Lebanese army from developing into an effective force for maintaining stability and security in its own territory.
The Syrian Civil War quickly acted as an impetus for Lebanon’s allies to help build the capabilities of the armed forces to ensure the conflict was kept out of the delicate nation. This has focused on developing the army’s elite units, commandoes and Navy seals, whose training is specifically suited to urban warfare and counterinsurgency operations such has been carried out in the north of the country with little focus on technologies and equipment that could help the nation in cross-country conflicts. Border patrols have been an another essential function which has caused some concern in neighbouring states due to seeming cooperation with Lebanon’s other armed force: Hezbollah.
“In Lebanon, there is Hezbollah, which conspicuously cooperates with the Lebanese army on joint patrols along the length of the Israeli border,” a columnist for Al Monitor wrote, warning, “top Israeli officials noted that these mobile patrols make use of vehicles and weapons that had been provided by the United State and are now serving Hezbollah via a ‘subcontractor’ – the Lebanese army.”
The fear that the Lebanese army is acting in the interest of Hezbollah are not new and many have raised concerns about the inability (or unwillingness) of the army to prevent Hezbollah from operating on both sides of the border in the interest of Bashir al-Assad, a leader whom many in Lebanon see as responsible for the current civil war.
Along with the security of Lebanon’s southern border, the army and Hezbollah do have some joint interests at the present time, mainly keeping ISIS and other Sunni terrorist groups from infiltrating Lebanon. That Hezbollah are tackling this threat inside of Syria’s territory may potentially, in fact, be taking some of the strain off Lebanon’s border and the army.
Concerns over such cooperation has led the Israeli’s to lobby international powers to limit certain military technologies which may, in the future, be used against Israel in any future conflict with Hezbollah (a conflict which will inevitably take place on Lebanese soil and risk the lives of Lebanese civilians). That Lebanon’s army would actively engage the IDF in a future conflict is unlikely. Past conflicts between Hezbollah and Israel have been focused on the Hezbollah strong holds of the south in parts of Beirut, sparing the majority of the country. Army involvement on the side of Lebanon would simply increase the levels of destruction and would be felt by the nation as a whole at a much greater level. Of greater concern is how the army will manage their relationship with Hezbollah moving forward.
Hezbollah has shown little resistance to the build-up of the army’s power, seeing it has beneficial to the current aims for Lebanon. In the future, however, the nation is going to have to deal with having two separate armed forces whose interest may not align in the future.
Historically, the Lebanese army has failed to engage domestic militant groups fearing this would create tension amongst the co-religious military forces. When domestic conflicts broke out, their approach was to police crease-fire agreements as they occurred. Tackling insurgencies from inside Palestinian camps or from Syria have been different, as these groups are outside of Lebanon’s society and not represented in the military.
The continued existence of Hezbollah has and will undermine the militaries ability to control the use of violence as a political tool of the nation state, and make the nation as a whole vulnerable to the whims of the Hezbollah leadership and their allies (which may go against the decision making of the government or the people en masse). It is unlikely that the army will attempt to take on Hezbollah head-on in the near future, however, not simply due to the domestic conflict that would ensue, but also due to the political deadlock and the role of Hezbollah itself in the government decision making. Unless the government can come to an agreement to integrate Hezbollah into the army or, preferably, dissolve Hezbollah’s armed wing entirely, the problem will continue.