Are the Lebanese Armed Forces truly independent of Hezbollah?

Are the Lebanese Armed Forces truly independent of Hezbollah?
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According to the State Department’s fact sheet on Lebanon, “The United States seeks to maintain its traditionally close ties with Lebanon and to help preserve its independence.” U.S. assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) “builds a capable and committed partner force,” and demonstrates “it is the sole legitimate defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty.”  

But is the LAF truly independent of the control of Hezbollah, a State Department-designated terrorist organization?

Let’s try a simple test. The sine qua non for the legitimacy of a nation’s armed forces is for the government to have absolute control and not tolerate any non-state military actors who can act independently. So, who has the power to wage or refrain from war in Lebanon — the Lebanese government, or Iranian-controlled Hezbollah? This is not a theoretical question. In 2006 the Lebanese government had no say in Hezbollah starting the Second Lebanon War against Israel, but its people bore the brunt of it. 

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Today, Hezbollah is even in a stronger position, with a far greater arsenal of weapons and sophisticated missiles that are not under the control of the national government. In addition, since the 2016 Lebanese coalition agreement, Hezbollah has had de facto veto power on political decisions despite being a minority stakeholder in the political process. The once-formidable authority of the position of the Lebanese Sunni prime minister does not exist now without Hezbollah’s consent, and the current Christian president, Michel Aoun, is an ally of Hezbollah. Statements by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri — such as, “As head of the government, I refuse any form of Lebanese involvement in the conflicts around us” — have little practical effect, which may explain why he recently resigned

As Mordechai Kedar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies wrote, “Lebanon has not existed for quite some time. The country’s agenda is dictated by Tehran, and its military and economy are designed to serve the needs of Hezbollah. … The Lebanese parliament, government, president and all other state institutions are nothing more than a façade.” 

But then, why do so many people, including some members of U.S. Congress, defend American military aid to the LAF? These defenders legitimately worry that without military support of the Lebanese government, the Christian, Druze and Sunni communities will be at the mercy of Hezbollah, and any attempt by the LAF to disarm Hezbollah will lead to another sectarian civil war as in the 1970s. But if the LAF has been too weak to disarm Hezbollah for over a decade, will they be able — or willing — to stop Hezbollah from taking American weapons at any time of their choosing in a potential future war with Israel?

Last week, the White House reportedly withheld over $100 million in military aid earmarked for the LAF, primarily in response to its allowing Hezbollah to import game-changing precision missiles from Iran through the Beirut airport and the newly expanded Iranian land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean. This should be no surprise; Hezbollah has been restocking its missile arsenal since the end of the Second Lebanon War 13 years ago, despite the United Nations Security Council’s demand that Hezbollah be disarmed

The longstanding weakness of the LAF is evidenced by the fact that it cannot enter a single Shiite village in southern Lebanon without Hezbollah’s permission or escort. The LAF, along with the impotent UNIFIL force, has stopped or identified none of the many missile shipments sent by Iran to Hezbollah.

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The withholding of U.S. aid for the Lebanese military is an appropriate response because things have been heating up between Hezbollah and Israel at Lebanon’s northern border with Israel. Hezbollah has threatened to unleash devastating precision-guided missiles against America’s only reliable ally in the region. 

Critics of withholding American aid to Lebanon warn against creating a vacuum that would invite the Russians into Lebanon, and recommend that allowing the LAF’s acquiescence to Hezbollah and Iran is the price that must be paid for America to remain engaged in Lebanon. When did it become American foreign policy to support an impotent military that is forced to work with a U.S.-designated enemy terrorist organization? 

If and when Israeli and Hezbollah next go to war, it will be a multi-front northern war against Iran and its Hezbollah and Shiite militia proxies extending from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Gaza to Yemen. And if it feels threatened, Hezbollah could be tempted to confiscate American planes and helicopters, Bradley advanced vehicles, and night vision goggles, paid for with American taxpayer dollars, and use them against against Israel.

This is not to say that we should not find a way to support the LAF. The U.S. must insist on implementing true safeguards that we ourselves monitor, to ensure that the weapons do not fall into Hezbollah’s hands. We should help create a plan for the LAF to begin to truly distance itself from Hezbollah as a precondition for continued aid, and not accept empty promises. 

The Lebanese people, including Shiites now taking to the streets, blame Hezbollah for their economic ills, while knowing that they will be the ones who pay the price of the next war. Hezbollah has embedded itself within civilian populations and the infrastructure of the nation. Now might be the right time for the United States to offer to return the military aid — under our terms and with strings attached — anticipating the likelihood of another, not so distant war. 

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides on the geo-politics of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.