Lebanon's Last Line of Defense
The future of Lebanon is vested in the performance of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The LAF is the anchor and rock of Lebanon. It remains apolitical and is the only legitimate military instrument in this small Mediterranean country. It is all too easy to predict the collapse of Lebanon due to sectarian differences linked to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Shiite Hezbollah’s game-changing intervention in Syria is countered by radical Sunni jihadists groups using Lebanon as a base for attacks into Syria. For Lebanon, the crisis in Syria is an internal-external civil war. It is both a proxy war involving outside major powers and a regional sectarian fight being waged on Syrian battlefields. The LAF is caught in the middle. The LAF needs strong U.S. support now and into the future to prevent Lebanon from fragmenting and descending into another all-out civil war of its own.
Convention holds that when Syria sneezes, Lebanon gets the flu. Syria is sneezing violently right now and, despite conventional wisdom, Lebanon remains relatively stable because of the LAF. Lebanon’s confessional government both helps and hinders this. It is flexible enough that it can withstand trauma, yet is susceptible to foreign meddling, which has meant that it cannot make united political decisions.
There are likely three potential outcomes from the Syrian civil war—none of which are desirable from a humanitarian perspective—that will lead to different scenarios being played out in Lebanon. In scenario one, the Assad regime wins and the threat of civil war in Lebanon significantly increases. The response of disgruntled Sunni radicals now finding safe haven in Lebanon could lead to wholesale sectarian violence. In scenario two, the Syrian opposition wins and a Sunni government is established. Hezbollah, in losing a major strategic ally in Damascus, will surely be cornered and pressured to disarm. It will likely refuse and could ignite another civil war. Under scenario three, the current situation prevails, Syria remains in constant turmoil, and the LAF are anchored. Scenario three is the most attractive option for the LAF for the time being, notwithstanding any major geostrategic shifts.
Lebanon’s interests are arguably best served by scenario three because it keeps Lebanon’s internal conflict externally focused. However, scenario three does put the LAF, as the glue holding Lebanon together, under considerable pressure, and that is why the U.S. should increase its assistance now despite the obvious turmoil that comes with scenario three. If scenarios one or two play out, the LAF will still need considerable assistance to be a buffer between Sunni and Shiite armed factions as they fight in Lebanon. Without a capable LAF to hold things together, Lebanon will descend into the abyss.
There is a clear linkage between the conflict in Syria and instability in Lebanon, as articulated by Heiko Wimmen earlier this year. In this comprehensive study, Wimmen examines and identifies the drivers of instability in Lebanon, including Hezbollah and its support for the Assad regime, as well as Lebanese Sunni Islamists and their support for Syrian rebels, who are now being armed by the CIA. He rightly labels the LAF as the very last buffer preventing an all-out sectarian civil war. He stresses the need for the European Union and Germany to provide logistical support to the LAF. The support is necessary, as is the political will displayed by its intent. While some extremists in Lebanon have questioned the LAF’s sectarian neutrality, all major political parties in Lebanon have an interest in supporting the LAF. Without the LAF, Lebanon will fracture into regional militias.
In addition to those factors, Syrian refugees in Lebanon threaten to not only overwhelm the state as a humanitarian crisis but also to unbalance a finely tuned power-sharing arrangement. Many Sunni Syrian refugees in Lebanon are obviously sympathetic to the opposition’s fight against al-Assad, while many of the Shia refugees support the regime. The LAF’s attention to Sunni extremists has not been equal to its attention to disarming Hezbollah. The LAF does not have enough lethal force and deterrence capabilities to force Hezbollah to disarm or not intervene in Syria, but it does have enough knowledge of Hezbollah’s political leadership to limit Hezbollah’s activities within Lebanon. This is not the case with the Sunni factions, which are more difficult to identify and control. However, as long as Lebanese factions focus their energies on Syria, Sunni political leadership will not significantly discredit the LAF, because without the LAF, they will have to rely for protection on religious extremists that they cannot control.