On June 8, 2021, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah held the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) responsible for delaying and refusing to show the public the findings of its Beirut port explosion investigation. One week later the militia started a public campaign against the LAF and its commander Joseph Aoun, when Hezbollah-affiliated journalists criticized the army.
There are two reasons behind this campaign:
First, Hezbollah is trying to deflect the collective blame for the port explosion because reports showed that the ammonium nitrate belonged to the Syrian regime. As no one in Lebanon can deny Hezbollah’s close relationship with Syria the militia needs a scapegoat.
Second, Hezbollah wants to make sure that the army commandment does not try to regain any of the institution’s independence now that all state institutions are facing collapse amid security challenges.
As it unfolds, this issue will force itself on the Joe Biden administration, because the US continues to give support, and aid to the LAF.
Hezbollah has always tried to influence LAF security and military decisions, but Joseph Aoun has started to slowly distance himself from the Lebanese president Michel Aoun, and other militia allies.
A long-term, and significant reason why Hezbollah is attacking the army commander, is because Joseph Aoun has presidential ambitions. With a good relationship with the US it makes him a stronger candidate than Hezbollah’s choice for presidency, the MP, Gebran Bassil, who was recently sanctioned by the US presidency.
The Lebanese army is probably the only institution in Lebanon that is still diverse, and enjoys a considerable level of trust and respect among the Lebanese people and the international community. This in spite of Hezbollah’s deep infiltration of the institution and its brigades. With the security and social collapse facing Lebanon, many in the international community, and mainly from Europe and the US are coordinating directly with the army to distribute aid and humanitarian assistance.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s financial crisis increases and its access to state institutions are no longer lucrative, but from some income sources, such as from the Ministry of Health, for example.
There are several implications that could result from the attacks on the LAF commander. Several are significant.
First, if the LAF leadership succumbed to Hezbollah’s threats, distanced itself from the US, and fully joined the Iranian axis in Lebanon, then the US might reconsider its help to it. Considering the financial crisis facing Lebanon and all its institutions, with this aid required more than ever. The US will also lose its leverage in Lebanon, with the LAF losing its integrity, and trustworthiness within the international community.
Second, Joseph Aoun could resist Hezbollah’s attacks for now, keeping his distance from public dynamics, and a low-profile until building new relations with the Biden administration happen. This maintains the status quo, and the attacks will continue.
Third, Joseph Aoun could stand up to the group, and enforce LAF’s institutional power and independence, without jeopardizing freedom of speech and expression. Hezbollah is testing the army, and as a new US administration enters the fray, Joseph Aoun may draw a red line.
This scenario could lead to a division within the institution. Both the LAF and Hezbollah require loyalty from their commanders and generals, and Lebanon could end up with a divided institution, with one supported by the West, and the other by Iran.
That is not ideal, as past experience show that a divided institution backfires on Lebanon’s fragile security. Therefore, it is wise that the international community acts on two levels: stand with LAF and empower it against Hezbollah, while make public the findings of international and local investigations of the port explosion, and show once and for all who’s responsible, and should be held accountable.