As the stalemate in electing a president for Lebanon drags on, tensions continue to simmer across the political spectrum, with clear indications of rising geopolitical concerns. These concerns have brought to the fore the rivalry and complex relationship between the Shiite militant Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The LAF’s commander, Joseph Aoun, appears to be among the most prominent candidates now in the presidential race, if not the lead candidate.
Several days ago, Lebanese journalist Hassan Olleik, known to be very close to Hezbollah, released a podcast episode in which he directed a very strong rebuking message and harsh words towards Aoun. Olleik criticized the LAF’s participation in the ongoing International Maritime Exercise led by the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, in which Israel is also a participant. This is highly emblematic of the rising tensions between Hezbollah and Aoun and the preeminence of security issues in Lebanese politics.
The strong criticism by Olleik could be a direct message from Hezbollah to Aoun. Olleik claimed that he sent a request to the LAF for comment on the matter, and the army replied that it is only participating in the event as an observer. Olleik believes this was a dubious answer aimed at fooling the Lebanese people. Ultimately, Olleik framed the LAF’s participation in the maritime exercise as a “very dangerous matter,” and further characterized it as an exclusive appeal by Aoun to U.S. demands and pressure that aim to achieve the normalization of relations between most of the Arab world and Israel.
More seriously, on security tensions, almost two weeks prior to Olleik’s podcast comments, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah threatened the United States in a televised speech on February 14 commemorating the group’s fallen leaders. Nasrallah warned that Hezbollah will respond with the use of its weapons if the Americans seek to create chaos that will push Lebanon into collapse, including going to war with Israel and creating chaos in the entire region. In a prior speech, Nasrallah called for the election of a president in Lebanon “who does not submit to American threats.”
The presidential election crisis in Lebanon has multiple underlying issues, including political divisions, sectarianism, and economic collapse. However, security concerns remain the most pressing, given Lebanon’s complex domestic politics, which are entangled with regional and geopolitical struggles in a volatile Middle East. Most notably, these struggles involve Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, on one side, and Saudi Arabia backed by traditional Western allies, including the United States, on the other side. Geopolitics continues to be of paramount importance in the Middle East, especially in light of the evolving global order, which has direct implications for the region.
As Nabeel Khoury writes at the Arab Center Washington DC, the upcoming Lebanese presidential election is primarily being played out against the backdrop of bloc politics. The March 8 Alliance, which is aligned with Syria and Iran, and the pro-Western March 14 Alliance, backed by Saudi Arabia, have been in opposition since the assassination of former prime minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri in 2005, and the subsequent withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. While these alliances are not as cohesive as they once were, the March 8 Alliance consists of the two leading parties, Hezbollah, and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, while the March 14 Alliance comprises Sunni Muslim and Maronite Christian parties. Although a dozen independent MPs won seats in Lebanon’s parliament in the May 2022 parliamentary elections, they largely alternate between the two alliances on major issues.
Since the withdrawal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon, the United States has become the primary partner of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). According to the U.S. Department of State, the United States has provided over $3 billion in security assistance to the LAF since 2006, with the vast majority of the aid coming in the form of critical training and equipment. A factsheet issued by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs states that the U.S. security assistance to the LAF is “a key component of US Lebanon policy to strengthen Lebanon’s sovereignty, secure its borders, counter internal threats, and disrupt terrorist facilitation.” The factsheet emphasizes the importance of LAF sovereignty and states that the LAF is “the sole legitimate defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty,” particularly in relation to the presence of Hezbollah as a military threat.
The situation regarding security arrangements in post-civil war Lebanon is paradoxical, as a result of military dualism involving the cohabitation of the LAF and Hezbollah. Although all Lebanese militias that participated in the civil war were disarmed under the Ta’if Agreement that put an end to the Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah was successfully legitimized in the name of “national resistance” against Israeli occupation and later against any future Israeli aggression with the regional backing of Iran and Syria.
The relationship between the LAF and Hezbollah is complex and multifaceted, encompassing military, security, and political aspects. Although both sides have coordinated on security matters since the end of the civil war in 1990, there has been competition between the two military institutions in developing their military power and autonomy.
While there have been a few military incidents between the LAF and Hezbollah that have exhibited friction since the end of the civil war, most recently, the LAF’s handling of the 2019 October 17 protests that erupted throughout Lebanon’s streets against the country’s political establishment including against Hezbollah and its allies, and the army’s role in preventing the advance of Hezbollah- and Amal party-affiliated armed men in Christian Tayoune area in central Beirut during protests that took place in October 2021 and were organized by Hezbollah and Amal to demand the removal of judge Tarek Bitar from the investigation into the August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion—during which several armed men were killed—have, according to many commentators, heightened tensions between the two rivals.
The likelihood of this rivalry persisting and escalating to undermine the existing military status quo in the future will depend on several factors, most notably the geopolitical competition between regional rival states and the great powers in the Middle East region. However, this is unlikely in the short term, given that sectarianism infiltrates the Lebanese army ranks, and any serious confrontation between Hezbollah and the LAF could lead to divisions within the LAF. Additionally, Hezbollah is reported to maintain a weapons arsenal that outweighs that of the LAF.
In addition, the LAF is currently facing critical financial challenges as part of Lebanon’s severe economic crisis that began in 2019. The World Bank has described Lebanon’s current economic crisis as one of the worst since the 1850s, with three-quarters of the population living in poverty. This has led to the deterioration of Lebanon’s key institutions, including the impoverishment of the Lebanese army and police forces, who are not even able to fund basic operations and fulfill key security functions.
Most recently, in January 2023, the US allocated $72 million to Lebanon to supplement the wages of the LAF and the Lebanese Internal Security Forces for a period of six months, amid the worsening economic situation with the drastic devaluation of the Lebanese pound that has diminished the value of officers’ and soldiers’ wages. According to the U.S. State Department, the United States provided $236 million in military grant assistance to the LAF in the fiscal year 2021.
While there has been previous momentum building in Washington to end U.S. assistance to the LAF, with some conservative House Republicans arguing that U.S. material assistance to the LAF could be diverted to Hezbollah, several politicians and commentators have advocated for continued U.S. support of the LAF. They argue that funding and bolstering the LAF will help build a strong military in Lebanon as an institutional counterweight to Hezbollah. Some have noted that long-term aid has turned the LAF into a competent military force with recently proven battle victories.
For instance, commentators, including Nicholas Blanford at the Atlantic Council, cited the LAF’s recent successes in conducting counterterrorism operations and respective wins against jihadist groups thanks to military aid from the United States. These include the battle of Arsal in August 2014 against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat an-Nusrah (JN), and the Qalamoun campaign from July to August 2017 against ISIL and JN’s successor, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
So far, despite Hezbollah's antagonistic stance against U.S. interests in Lebanon and the region, the group has not interfered with the United States’ support of the LAF, nor made any attempts to stall cooperation. Hezbollah is cognizant of the particular confessional structure of Lebanese society and the entrenched Shia constituency in the army. As a result, any serious confrontation with the LAF is seen as only a remote possibility. Lebanese realpolitik has dictated that no confrontation occurs on either side. The historical precedence of the Lebanese sectarian civil war, which lasted over fifteen years with its dreadful consequences of warring sectarian parties controlling their own areas, is a real lesson. Perhaps, Hezbollah is also aware of the very implausibility of establishing military rule in Lebanon, given its very sectarian nature, where sectarian parties and elites hold sway over society.