For an organization that has disintegrated twice in the past four and a half decades – once in 1976 and another in 1984 – the Lebanese army is no stranger to crisis. But with the Lebanese economy in free fall, the predicament the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) find themselves in is unprecedented. The considerable financial deficit of the FAL over the past two years has significantly affected its morale, readiness and operational capacity.
In June 2021, LAF Commander General Joseph Aoun held a press conference at army headquarters, warning of the danger of continued paralysis and imploring the country’s leadership to support the LAF. “If not mitigated, the economic and financial crisis will inevitably lead to the collapse of all state institutions, including the FAL – the backbone of the country,” he said. said.
The FAL paid the equivalent of $1,000 a month to Lebanese enlisted soldiers. Since late 2019, however, that already modest sum has dropped to $30, according to LAF executives, due to the Lebanese pound losing more than 90% against the US dollar. Things got so bad that by the time General Aoun was delivering his June speech, the LAF were offering tourists helicopter rides to try to earn extra income. It has been very difficult for the Lebanese soldiers to stay focused, show firmness and perform their duties at a high level. Many have had to work multiple jobs just to feed their families. The LAF has even forced its staff to adopt a vegetarian diet because they cannot afford meat.
There couldn’t have been a worse time for the LAF to potentially collapse. A series of monumental challenges await Lebanon now that the legislative elections are over, all of which require a modicum of stability that only the LAF can provide.
- The fact that more than a dozen independent candidates seeking change have won the elections gives reason for measured optimism. But despite their tactical losses, the old guard will retain considerable political influence in the next parliament that will allow them to fight any significant changes to the sectarian and feudal system. This fundamental clash between reformists and status quo factions is more than likely to lead to prolonged institutional paralysis. An interim government, led by current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, is expected to remain in power for many months, and presidential elections, scheduled for the fall, will be postponed indefinitely. In this environment of political stalemate and institutional dysfunction, it is essential that the LAF maintain its stature as the only state institution still functional and representative of all Lebanese religious communities.
- Political polarization is expected to increase and is unlikely to remain confined to parliament. If recent history is any guide, it could spill out onto the streets and lead to protests and counter-protests, which have a history in Lebanon of turning violent and spiraling out of control. The FAL have a constitutional responsibility to keep the peace and will again be desperately needed.
- Without a quick solution to the country’s structural economic problems, the humanitarian situation, which has already reached alarming levels, could worsen. Crime and militancy are likely to proliferate, leading to a general deterioration in security. With much reduced law enforcement, drug trafficking will once again thrive in the Bekaa region, to the benefit of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. Only a strong and capable LAF can solve or at least contain these problems.
- The most important message from the parliamentary elections held recently is that more people want an independent and sovereign Lebanon, and no institution seeks to defend these principles more strongly than the LAF. Implicitly or explicitly, it was a vote for the FAL. If the candidates for change raise the issue of Hezbollah weapons in parliament and call for a renewed dialogue on a national defense strategy, a weak or collapsing LAF will not help.
- Geopolitically, there is increased global competition and indirect conflict between the United States and Russia in Europe given the war in Ukraine. The last thing Washington wants to do right now is give Moscow a lifeline in the Middle East and more specifically, a more strategic presence in the natural gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean and NATO’s southern flank. This is possible if the ALF collapses and Russia moves in and supplants the US as a partner. Russia would not have to (and cannot) offer the same high quality assistance as the United States. All he has to do is establish a transactional relationship with Lebanon, which will be very difficult for the FAL to resist for no reason other than to prevent its own breakdown.
For the United States, the potential fall of the FAL would significantly reduce its access and influence in Lebanon. The LAF is the only reliable and effective partner Washington has worked with over the past decade. Moreover, no partner army in the Arab world has reformed and even transformed in recent years more credibly than the LAF, thanks to the support of the United States. Losing the American foothold in Lebanon essentially means handing the country over to Iran and Hezbollah, which Israel will not tolerate and could lead to another full-scale war with the Shiite group that will likely upset regional stability.
The Biden administration appreciates the strategic value of partnering with the LAFs. In March 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States will maintain its support for the military, and later in September, President Joe Biden sign a memorandum pledging $47 million in immediate relief. However, this additional US aid was primarily for defense articles rather than direct support to Lebanese soldiers.
Recognizing the great human challenge posed by the FAL, in January 2022 the State Department announced that it planned to reroute $67 million in military aid providing “livelihood support” to members of the Lebanese Army. Still, several Republican members of Congress have raised concerns about the move — which is why the funds have yet to flow to the LAFs — saying the US shouldn’t set a precedent by paying direct cash payments to the military of partner countries. , and should not give money to LAFs that could benefit Hezbollah. These arguments are completely unconvincing.
First, the United States provides billions of dollars each year to many international military partners, including the Egyptian and Jordanian armed forces, which ultimately help fund the salaries of those nations’ soldiers. The United States may not call this aid “livelihood support,” but that is precisely what it helps, at least in part. The Jordanian military in particular cannot survive without the annual injection of cash from the United States given the lack of domestic funds to support the Jordanian armed forces.
Second, if the LAF can be trusted to protect the sophisticated weapons they receive from the United States (indeed, they have an impeccable record of end-use monitoring according to the State Department), they can certainly be trusted to effectively use and manage financial resources. The use of biometrics, which could be provided by international organizations, could also be considered to ensure best accounting practices.
Strategic considerations regarding Why the United States argues that the LAF should override secondary process concerns raised by some U.S. lawmakers. There is no point in continuing to donate tens of millions of US dollars worth of US equipment to the FAL every year if the Lebanese soldier – the backbone of the army – is barely able to survive and make ends meet. It would be illogical and a clear waste of US taxpayers’ money. American interests in Lebanon are best served if Washington takes a more holistic and strategic view of its assistance to the FAL.
Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. He is the author of the recently published book Rebuilding Arab Defense: American Security Cooperation in the Middle East. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.
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