Lebanon's army grapples with an unpredictable future

Analysis - Lebanon Army
7 min read
26 May, 2022
In-depth: Tasked with ensuring national security and sectarian cohesion, Lebanon's armed forces were assailed by a financial crisis that slashed their salaries by more than 90 percent and pressured them to maintain public trust amid rising tensions.

Amid low turnout, clashes, attacks on polling station personnel, and attempts of fraud, the Lebanese parliamentary elections took place on 15 May from 7 am to 7 pm.

With a fluctuating atmosphere of violence and tranquillity, the Lebanese army was deployed twenty-four hours prior to ensure electoral security in and around the polling stations.

In more than one instance, the Lebanese army intervened to resolve scuffles between the opposing political factions dispersed throughout the 15 electoral districts.

"Overwhelmed with public order missions and security tasks, the Lebanese Armed Forces are grappling with a debilitating financial crisis"

The military was tasked with controlling security, protecting delegates, and ensuring the integrity of the democratic process, away from any irregularities.

Overwhelmed with public order missions and security tasks, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are grappling with a debilitating financial crisis that rendered their salaries close to £40 a month, due to the ongoing collapse of the Lebanese Lira.

Furthermore, the security institution faced accusations by members of the public that it deliberately caused a migrant-smuggling boat to sink near the northern port city of Tripoli in April.

The October 17 Revolution in 2019 was another period that resulted in confrontations between the army and the protestors, which, according to the latter, further fractured the relationship between the public and the military, albeit temporarily.

On the other hand, defence and political experts told The New Arab that despite the financial burdens that weigh heavily on the army and the cynicism from some members of the public, the army remained an incontestable pillar of national security and could emerge from the crisis, with the help of national and international players.

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Between sadness and sympathy

In Lebanon's 2019 demonstrations the army's role was varied. On one hand, they reportedly clashed with the protestors on several occasions in attempts to open blocked roads.

On the other, the army played a pivotal role in shielding the protestors from violent attacks conducted by supporters of Hezbollah and its allies.

This led to conflicting sentiments towards the security institution and its role in prioritising civilians' security and safety.

Walid, 30, was an avid participant in the October 17 movement and dedicated months of his time to the demonstrations. He told The New Arab that a demand for a military coup was present all throughout the revolution.

"In our Lebanese culture, the military is a sacred institution, hailed for its integrity and sacrifices. Therefore, a lot of people trusted them in governance and were then disheartened to witness clashes between the two," he said.

"Despite the financial burdens and cynicism from some members of the public, the army remains an incontestable pillar of national security"

As for Yahya, 23, from Tripoli, prior to the revolution his dream was to join the army and pledge to the army's motto ‘honour, sacrifice, and loyalty’. However, he hesitated following the clashes.

"Every house in Tripoli has family members in the army, so we are like siblings here. However, it's difficult to move past the clashes as if nothing happened," he said.

Nonetheless, both men said they still sympathised with the soldiers and wished for the betterment of their situation, as they did not want members of a key security institution to suffer.

"Whenever I see soldiers waiting in line at the bank, my heart breaks. I deeply sympathise with these people that have families to fend for and can barely afford to fill up gas with their salaries," Yahya said.

Furthermore, amid political uncertainty following the emergence of a new parliament, the Lebanese Armed Forces seem to be tasked with the arduous mission of maintaining national cohesion amongst the various sects and political factions.

Lebanon's army grapples with an unpredictable future
An anti-government protester grabs the shield of a Lebanese soldier as she blocks a road leading to the parliament in Beirut's downtown district on 27 January 2020. (Patrick Baz/AFP)

Struggles and successes

According to political activist Joe Rahal, the LAF is the only institution to surpass the country's sectarian differences. The possibility of its collapse would have major repercussions on civil security.

"As long as there are soldiers on the ground, I don't fear any physical strife between political parties. In fact, it's the only institution keeping the country from falling into further divisions and armed clashes," Rahal told The New Arab.

Furthermore, he said that the army was caught in a double bind, combining the establishment's desire to silence dissent by force and the protestors' wish to riot as a response.

"They can't win. Both parties will be dissatisfied with the LAF's performance and will keep pressuring them to act differently. At the end of the day, the army's priority is to de-escalate conflicts for the sake of preserving civil peace," the activist said.

For Rahal, the army is the only governmental institution that has maintained its quality of service, despite the financial setbacks. The finances reportedly needed to help the soldiers cover their basic needs on a monthly basis for a year, is around $90 million to $100 million.

Although US President Joe Biden has already cleared $47 million in military aid to Lebanon, this did not mean funds allocated to the LAF will be received as direct finances. As of today, the value of the aid remains unclear.

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Future uncertainty

From his end, senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Aram Nerguizian, describes the Lebanese army as one of the Middle East's most capable Arab militaries, though it lacks the political environment that allows it to be effective.

His main fear, therefore, is not the institution's collapse, but its decay.

"The LAF in 2022 will not collapse, however, I am concerned that if things go badly and resources remain scarce it will have to shut down certain capabilities and mission areas," Nerguizian told The New Arab.

Nonetheless, Nerguizian added that the LAF's primary sponsor, the US, does not want such an outcome. Instead, Washington has sought to preserve a like-minded institution that is willing to be a source of security and stability, not just to Lebanon, but to the wider Levant.

Without the LAF, he said, the US would have to spend far more money stabilising and intervening in potential military conflicts threatening the levant.

"The possibility of the army's collapse would have major repercussions on civil security"

As for public perception, Nerguizian believes the institution needs to develop novel strategic communication tactics when addressing the public.

"I would recommend communicating with the public on a daily basis so that the people are aware of the army's steps and reasons for deployments,” he said.

“They also need to help the public distinguish members of the army from other security institutions such as the Parliamentary Police Corps that might share similar uniforms with the LAF and Internal Security Forces (ISF)," he said.

Regarding past altercations with protestors, Nerguizian believes the army internalised the lessons learned from previous experiences and even requested from donors the addition of training sessions in public order missions. Although, the expert argues that this was the work of the ISF, not the army.

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Two armies, one country

Although Hezbollah's Iran-funded arms are perceived by many as threats to national security, Nerguizian argued that the army does not shy away from confrontations during breaches of civil peace, regardless of their source.

For instance, during the armed conflict between Hezbollah and the Arab tribes of Khalde last year, the Lebanese Army stated that they would open fire  on “every gunman on the road” in the area and “anyone who opens fire from anywhere else.”

Furthermore, Nerguizian considers the coexistence of the LAF with Hezbollah's forces a temporary measure that could result in the decay of one party or its transmutation.

Consequently, he added, Hezbollah's next evolution would depend on shifts in regional politics and could not be predicted thus far.

The possibility to merge both armed forces, however, is implausible.

"There is a layer of appreciation by the international community of what the LAF represents, so I'm reassured about the institution's future"

"You can't blend two corporate identities and then assume it's going to work. Hezbollah is concerned with precision-guided and ballistic missiles. The LAF on the other hand focuses on the ability to field an organised military with minimum arms that can impose a political outcome by force," Nerguizian said.

For the time being, soldiers are thrust into second or third jobs in an attempt to survive crisis-ridden Lebanon, which commanders have allowed, sympathetic to their soldiers' plight.

“The only thing that we can offer to the soldier is the peace of mind that we are here to protect your family, to ensure they have adequate medical coverage and that the kids (can go) to school,” one general said.

Although fears loom around the institution's future, especially amid an ongoing financial collapse, Nerguizian maintains an optimistic attitude regarding incoming foreign aid.

"There is a layer of appreciation by the international community of what the LAF represents, so I'm reassured about the institution's future, although I'm not at liberty to say more at this time," he said.

Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut. 

Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHourany