France is Fueling the Flames of Conflict in the Middle East

November 16, 2023 Topic: Lebanon Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: LebanonFranceHezbollahArms SalesArab-Israeli Conflict

France is Fueling the Flames of Conflict in the Middle East

French arms sales to Lebanon should be considered indirect shipments to Hezbollah.

Why is France supplying armored personnel carriers to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)? After the announcement early this month, French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said it was “vital” to strengthen Lebanon’s military as tensions between Israel and Hezbollah rise.

But the hazards are enormous. There is a high risk that any military equipment supplied to the Lebanese army will make its way to the terrorist group Hezbollah or its master, Iran. France has ignored this risk despite almost constant Hezbollah rocket attacks on the north of Israel and the risk of war breaking out.

Skirmishes on Israel’s northern border have been commonplace since Hamas’s October 7 Massacre, and Hezbollah has threatened to expand the conflict. On November 6, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the group prepared for all options and would “resort to them at any time.” Two days later, Hezbollah mobilized 1,500 of its troops from Syria to Lebanon.

The danger of arming Lebanon is nothing new. In 2016, the Israeli government presented evidence that Hezbollah was using APCs supplied by the United States to the LAF. In July, the ALMA Research and Education Center reported that weapons and military equipment provided to the Lebanese Army by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and other European countries have slipped into the hands of Hezbollah.

In other words, weapon shipments to the Lebanese military should be considered indirect weapons shipments to terrorists. By supplying the LAF with APCs, Paris is providing Hezbollah with military equipment that the militant group could use against Israel if Hezbollah decides to attack.

Nor is this the first time that France has engaged in questionable weapons deals with close allies of Tehran.

Earlier this year, France sold armored carriers to Armenia despite Israeli concerns that they could make their way to Iran or Russia, given Yerevan’s close ties with both nations. But France ignored these risks to jostle for influence with its regional competitor Turkey, a close ally of Armenia’s nemesis Azerbaijan. Last month, France doubled down on its commitments in the South Caucasus, supplying Armenia with three Thales Ground Master 200 radar systems and promising future shipments of Mistral anti-air missiles. Russia’s joint air defense agreement with Armenia, which gives Moscow access to this military equipment, did not alter France’s calculations. Emboldening Russia and Iran, both of which are waging hybrid warfare against Western allies, was a price France was willing to pay for greater influence in the South Caucasus.

A similar story is repeating itself in Lebanon. France wants to maintain its influence over the crisis-plagued Mediterranean country. France has a long and close history with Lebanon. Lebanon was previously a French Mandate bestowed by the League of Nations, and the incompetent and corrupt Lebanese government still has close political and cultural ties with its former suzerain. Many Lebanese are fluent in French. Additionally, some 700 French soldiers make up the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL), a UN peacekeeping mission in the south of the country.

Since its establishment in 1978, UNIFIL has not kept much peace. Part of its mandate was to create a zone in South Lebanon free of any militia groups and entirely under the control of the Lebanese military. As ineffectuality is all but a given with UN organizations, the UN body renews UNIFIL’s mandate annually. Hezbollah often harasses UNIFIL convoys and steals their weapons and equipment.

Lecornu said the shipment of APCs was vital for the Lebanese Army so it could better coordinate with UNIFIL. But the argument that strengthening the LAF to make it competitive against Hezbollah is, at best, wishful thinking. Military equipment would only be useful in confronting Hezbollah if the LAF had the courage or power to face the much more powerful militant group.

There is evidence that the terrorist group has infiltrated the Lebanese military. Lebanese forces acquiesce to Hezbollah’s demands and have helped the group restrict UNIFIL’s freedom of movement and access to Hezbollah strongholds. According to ALMA, some Shiite-majority divisions of the LAF would even fight alongside Hezbollah in a conflict against Israel.

Paris knows of these problems but may prioritize relations with its former mandate above all other considerations. French adventurism and desire to keep its contacts in Lebanon continually place Paris’ interests over the interests of the West again. Like in the South Caucasus, France has found itself on the side of Iran and Russia, both of which are providing support for Hezbollah.

The French APCs could make much more of a positive difference in Ukraine. Kyiv has resorted to using Soviet-era APCs no longer fit for combat. Last year, a French independent think tank criticized Paris for supplying less military equipment to Ukraine than the United Kingdom, Germany, and even Latvia. In April, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki noted France’s contributions to the war lagged behind several other European countries and cast doubts on Paris’s commitment to the war effort.

Immediately following the October 7 Massacre, France was unequivocal in its support for Israel. However, in the past two weeks, there has been a shift in French discourse and strategy. Besides the announcement of providing Israel’s enemy Lebanon with APCs, France hosted an international conference on the humanitarian conflict in Gaza on November 9. Two days later, French President Emmanuel Macron called on Israel to stop bombing “babies, ladies and old people.”

Since the start of the Israeli war in Gaza against Hamas, France has warned Hezbollah and Iran to stay out of the conflict to prevent it from becoming regional. On November 2, Lecornu said, “Lebanon doesn’t need war.” Yet France’s arming of Beirut will not only do nothing to prevent war but will greatly assist Hezbollah should a war break out.

Joseph Epstein is a legislative fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), focusing on the Middle East and post-Soviet Space.