The Israel lobby in the US Congress is trying to hold up US military assistance to Lebanon after last week’s exchange of fire at the border between Israel and Lebanon. Withholding or blocking US military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, however, is a short-sighted policy that will harm US interests in the Middle East and will also have negative implications in the medium to long term for Israel.
The allegation, which originates in propaganda offices in Israel, that the Lebanese armed forces have somehow been taken over by or infiltrated by Hizbullah is frankly ridiculous. The most powerful officers are Maronite Christians, and President Michel Sulaiman had been chief of staff before becoming president. Hint: Michel is not a Muslim name. Sulaiman proposed building up the armed forces in response to the border misunderstanding, and all the political factions in Lebanon– Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze, praised him for it. Again, this initiative is coming from the Christian leadership. Whether Hizbullah really wants the army of the central government strengthened is not clear, but they could hardly protest the shoring up of a national institution (despite being Shiite fundamentalists, Hizbullah has consistently supported a strong, united Lebanon and is among the foremost purely Lebanese nationalist forces in the country).
The silly allegation about Hizbullah and the LAF is a smear, and derives from Tel Aviv’s unease with not being able to have its way with Lebanon at will. In particular, Israeli hawks have long coveted the water resources of south Lebanon, and don’t want a strong Lebanese army and state that would put an end to that expansionist dream.
Lebanon has a small, weak, and poorly equipped army that is affected by the deep rifts of a sectarian nature in Lebanese society. A good recent study is [pdf] that of Aram Nerguizian at CSIS.
In 2008, Lebanon had only 56,000 men under arms, about half the strength of Jordan (100,000), which is not itself a signficant military power. Israel with 176,000, Syria with nearly 300,000, and Egypt with 460,000, are all towering giants in comparison. Lebanon is demographically small, at only 4 million or so, whereas Jordan is closer to 6 million, Israel to 7.2 million, Syria to 20 million, and Egypt to 81 million. So Lebanon’s small military is in part a function of its small population, though the country needs a bigger military for internal security purposes and the government should be spending 4 to 5 percent on the military budget, which it does not.
Lebanon’s army collapsed in the mid-1970s in the face of the Civil War. In the 1990s after that war was ended by a new national pact brokered at the Saudi resort city of Taef, the army began being rebuilt. It had a rival in the south of the country in the form of the Hizbullah fundamentalist Shiite militia. The LAF was stunted by the Syrian occupation, which ended in 2005. It was a bystander in the 2006 war, though the Israelis killed some officers and struck at a barracks in Beirut and at facilities as far north as Tripoli (none of these Israeli strikes on the LAF had anything to do with Tel Aviv’s war on Hizbullah. There are no Shiites in Tripoli). Since the Likudniks are saying that the Israeli officer who unfortunately died in last week’s border incident was “executed,” one would like to know if the 49 Lebanese officers Israel killed in 2006 were also executed.
A big post-2005 test of the Lebanese Armed Forces was its battle against the Fath al-Islam fundamentalist terrorist group based in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, which it at length won.
When Lebanon was in political chaos in the 1970s and 1980s, that instability spilled over onto the United States. An Israeli strike on Lebanon in the mid-90s was among the things that angered 9/11 hijackers Muhammad Atta and Ziad Jarrah (the latter a secular Lebanese Sunni).
For the US to cease supporting the strengthening of Lebanon’s armed forces will have the following effects:
1. In general, a weaker army means a relatively stronger Hizbullah paramilitary, and other non-state militias such as those in the Palestinian camps would also be relatively stronger
2. The army’s attempts to assert control in the Shiite south of Lebanon will be impeded, helping Hizbullah
3. If the US does not give military aid to the Lebanese armed forces, then other global and regional actors will, including Iran. Is that what the Israel Lobby in Congress wants, to push Lebanon into Tehran’s arms?
In contrast, if the US helps quietly build up the Lebanese armed forces, at some point they will naturally overshadow Hizbullah. It is not desirable that the army be positioned as anti-Hizbullah nor that it take on the militia militarily. But in the medium term, a strong army would just be able better to assert its prerogatives. And it is better if that army is close to NATO powers, not to Iran.
As for Israel, the likelihood of the Lebanese armed forces becoming so powerful as to become a genuine military threat to Israel in its own right is vanishingly small. Israel has a nuclear arsenal and has been massively equipped by the US (Lebanon has no air force to speak of and not even much in the way of anti-aircraft weapons). The main role of the LAF is likely to remain internal. If you want al-Qaeda-type organizations like Fath al-Islam proliferating and Hizbullah becoming unchallenged and a general power vacuum that favors forces of disorder and terrorism, then cut off your nose to spite your face and deprive little Lebanon of its $100 million this year for its military.
Sometimes what the Likud Party in Israel wants and what is good for United States interests just aren’t the same thing, and the US Congress will have to decide which it wants to represent.