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
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.
While Lebanon’s internal conflicts are fought externally in Syria, there is a window of opportunity to bolster the LAF and make it capable of protecting Lebanon if and when Syria transitions. However, only a coordinated and coherent international approach will work. If we wish to support the LAF’s ability to act as the legitimate military force of a sovereign state, then it must be resourced for success through a variety of credible international supporters. Ultimately, the LAF must be strong enough to be the only military force in Lebanon, which of course reduces the need for an increasingly delegitimized Hezbollah. A strong LAF counters Hezbollah, but it is not a zero-sum game, as it is reasonable to envision elements currently under Hezbollah's umbrella being integrated into the LAF in the future.
There have been no reports, despite heavy monitoring, of U.S. lethal assistance to the LAF being transferred to Hezbollah. Hezbollah are still better equipped than the LAF, courtesy of Iran. The LAF know that if any of their U.S.-provided military support passed to Hezbollah, U.S. supply would dry up almost immediately. With Hezbollah active, there is always a risk that they may try to take weapons, but a cynic would argue that we have to give the LAF something worth stealing first, which, despite recent Huey II deliveries, we have not done. Of course, Hezbollah has not stolen LAF assets because the sort of equipment provided has been light, as anything more substantial would be considered by Israel to be a threat and thus dismissed. If we are to set up the LAF to counter Hezbollah, we need to convince Congress that the benefits outweigh the risks and also ensure that Israel understands the logos of our approach. A weak LAF is at greater risk of failing to perform when needed than is a strong LAF, even if there were some weapons leakages. More can and should be done to give the LAF what they need to do the job. After all, we seem to be happy to arm the Syrian opposition.
Despite the short-term nature of America’s reduction of diplomatic personnel in Beirut, now is the time to step up internationally and support the LAF. Even with the existing tools provided, the LAF has proved on the borders of Syria and Israel that it is worthy of our continued support. To avoid an internal-external war deteriorating into another Lebanese civil war, with regional and international implications, we need to connect the dots, mobilize the willing, shape the narrative of the less willing, and convince policy-makers and fiscal mandarins that a change is needed and that the LAF deserves better. The opportunity presented must not be missed. Otherwise, someone else will pick up the pieces as Lebanon falls.
Robert Sharp is an Associate Professor and Sterling Jensen is a Research Associate at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the NESA Center, National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.