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Maintaining support for the LAF is crucial for Lebanon’s security

Hanin Ghaddar

Published: Updated:

With Lebanon on edge of collapse, unrest is expected to grow. In 2020, murders jumped 91 percent from 2019, while robberies increased 57 percent and car thefts hit a nine-year high, according to Information International.

Fighting over basic needs and goods will only increase as shortages grow, and clashes between people on the streets are likely to occur more often.

The only institution that still has any capacity to maintain minimal security standards is the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), but it is stretched thin. A worried leadership is concerned that deploying troops to crisis zones is becoming difficult in the face of rising fuel costs.

For this specific reason, LAF commander Joseph Aoun visited Washington earlier this month, where the talks focused on the needs of officers rather than military equipment.

Since 2005, US assistance to the LAF has been vital for the force’s continuity and unity, but amid the current economic crisis, this aid is becoming crucial to maintain the institution and its basic security objectives.

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For the past three years, annual Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Lebanon has amounted to $100 million, with a further $100 million in additional Defense Department spending on border security and training activities. Around $3 million has been dedicated to international military education. In comparison, the US has been the biggest donor to the LAF with assistance exceeding $4 billion since 2010.

The goal of this assistance has never been to eliminate Hezbollah. Realistically, the LAF cannot stand up to the group’s military capabilities, and the sectarian nature of any institution in Lebanon - including the army institution - means that any confrontation will divide the army and its leadership. This happened during the Lebanese civil war.

Broadly the financial and training assistance has helped the LAF counter a number of insurgencies and security threats, such as the ISIS offensive in the North in 2017, and local street clashes and internal violence.

For the US, and other European countries that have been supporting the LAF, the goal is to maintain security, especially when the country’s other institutions are collapsing during the worst economic crisis in Lebanon’s history.

This assistance also provides the US with a degree of leverage over critical decisions the country must make. These can vary from choosing security appointments to the advice offered to provide adequate protection of protestors during the 2019 protests.

Army Commander General Joseph Aoun attends the official funeral ceremony for the Lebanese soldiers who were killed in ISIS captivity. (File Photo: Reuters)
Army Commander General Joseph Aoun attends the official funeral ceremony for the Lebanese soldiers who were killed in ISIS captivity. (File Photo: Reuters)

The LAF track record of covering its remit hasn’t always been the best. It’s acknowledged that the institution is not ideal, and never will be. Given the political and economic woes in Lebanon this is hardly surprising.

Unfortunately, many LAF personnel have collaborated with Hezbollah over the years, along with several of its institutions, and some are guilty of violating human rights, and clamping down on freedom of speech. These include the military court and the army intelligence unit.

Despite this the LAF has managed to maintain a level of independence, in part because of US collaboration.

In recent months, the position taken by the LAF, and the strategic functions it provides to the country has shifted somewhat. Army commander Joseph Aoun has been the target of numerous media and political attacks from Hezbollah and its allies.

He will have taken comfort in the warm welcome he received during his visits to Washington. US support was clear when it placed sanctions on the Free Patriotic Movement’s Gebran Bassil.

Both Bassil and Joseph Aoun have presidential ambitions, and as Michel Aoun’s tenure comes to a close next year the competition between them will intensify.

This has made the LAF commander a persona non grata for Iran’s proxy and allies in Lebanon.

One of the main issues hovering over this frustrated approach against the LAF commander is the increased coordination between the US, the UK and the LAF to monitor the eastern borders of Lebanon. This capability comes via a network of sophisticated towers funded by the UK and managed by a British team in Lebanon.

The towers are placed along the border with Syria and each one can monitor an area of around 20 km. Although this project started in 2009, the collaboration has increased in recent years, and halting smuggling has started to bear fruit.

Hezbollah has escalated its efforts to discredit the general and the LAF, blaming the army for obstructing the investigation of the Beirut port blast, for example, and then accusing it of starting the Tayyouneh street clashes in October.

As the US assistance to the LAF increased by an additional $67 million in October, Hassan Nasrallah turned his campaign to target the “US interference in Lebanon” via its security assistance to the LAF, making the institution a natural target.

US assistance to the LAF has been purposely unconditional and unobtrusive, in order to maintain the independence of the institution. Meanwhile, Iran and its proxies have checked every “interference” category in Lebanon. This includes smuggling out subsidized goods, smuggling in weapons, and sending fighters from Lebanon to other conflicts across the region. Any effort taken to make Lebanon neutral is almost impossible in these circumstances.

Securing some level of security in Lebanon is essential, particularly when the parliamentary elections are getting closer, and with many activists under threat. The LAF assistance remains crucial in this regard, and the risk from halting US input is much larger than the risks resulting from its demise.

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