Lebanese army rejuvenation stuck in perpetual limbo

As Lebanon's most potent force, Hezbollah doesn't want the army to achieve full operational readiness.

When France set up a meeting to boost Lebanon's state military, it seemed so easy and clear. If only. Alas, very few things are easy and clear in Lebanon and the Middle East.
When France set up a meeting to boost Lebanon's state military, it seemed so easy and clear. If only. Alas, very few things are easy and clear in Lebanon and the Middle East.

Lebanese army rejuvenation stuck in perpetual limbo

A meeting convened by France that had been scheduled for 27 February to rally support for the Lebanese military has been postponed indefinitely.

This was seen as a prudent move in several Western capitals, including Washington, D.C.. The French, some felt, had been a bit hasty.

The ongoing uncertainty of Israel's war on Gaza, the difficulties in negotiating a ceasefire, and the tension between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon were all factors in the decision.

Paris has been working within the Quintet Committee (including the United States, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) with a view to dialling down tensions between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

French diplomats have also been trying to help fill the vacancy of Lebanese president, a seat unfilled for two years now.

The Quintet

In seeking to restore calm on the Lebanon-Israel border, the relevant UN Security Council Resolution guiding the Quintet is 1701, which was intended to resolve the 2006 Lebanon War.

To be fulfilled, this resolution would require Lebanon’s military plus a UN peacekeeping force to fill the Lebanese territory between the border and the Litani River, with Hezbollah forces withdrawing.

Despite this, France’s call to support the Lebanese army was premature as the effectiveness of such support is contingent on defining the army’s role and identifying the personnel and equipment it needs.

The invite may have optimistically assumed that a ceasefire in the south could be achieved quickly. Still, there are complex regional dynamics and strict US security demands to protect Israel’s interests, about which Paris no doubt knew.

The urgency from France is underscored by a three-phase proposal that French Foreign Minister Stéphane Ségornie previously sent to both Lebanon and Israel.

This plan would end current hostilities and address border issues. The first phase is an end to active military operations on both sides.

The second requires the withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters (including the Radwan Force) to 10km north of the border, the deployment of 15,000 Lebanese soldiers to the border within three days, and the end of Israeli flights over Lebanese airspace.

The final phase, to be completed within ten days, involves Lebanon and Israel resuming talks to gradually demarcate their land borders, with the support of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

They would also discuss creating a demilitarised zone free of any non-state armed groups between the border and the Litani River and a buffer zone free from all structures and facilities very close to the border.

France's call to support the Lebanese army was premature as the effectiveness of such support is contingent on defining the army's role and identifying what it needs.

No supporters

France's three-phase plan calls for international support to strengthen the Lebanese army with financial aid, equipment, and training, hence why France had scheduled the 27 February support meeting in the first place.

Hezbollah dismissed the French proposal, refusing to engage in negotiations until the Gaza conflict ends.

Likewise, the US did not respond, indicating that the Ségornie initiative might have more to do with maintaining momentum and reinforcing French diplomatic influence than providing a concrete solution to the crisis.

For Washington, withdrawing Hezbollah's military hardware like anti-tank systems to just 10km north of the border does not align with UNSC Resolution 1701, which mandates its withdrawal to at least 30km, back to the Litani River.

For Iran, which wields influence in Lebanon through its support for Hezbollah, the French plan does not meet its political objectives. Nor does it meet Israel's.

So, although the French idea looks like a compromise, none of the big players bought into it. The initiative also suffers from an unrealistic expectation of the role that the Lebanese army could play.

The former colonial power, France, sought to make a qualitative change in Lebanon, in line with its desire to reassert its influence in a land where once it held sway.

It did so under the guise of facilitating army support for the southern border, as would be required to fulfil UN Resolution 1701.

An armoured vehicle of the International Peacekeeping Forces (UNIFIL) in southern Lebanon on October 11, 2022.

However, this strategy would not have given the army any significant role, while Hezbollah would simply strengthen its position within Lebanon and postpone the debate over its disarmament to a later date.

An earlier promise

This (aborted) French effort was not the first attempt to equip and empower the Lebanese army to have failed.

On 8 January 2013, the French announced the approval of a Saudi grant to the Lebanese army during a visit to the Kingdom by (then) French President François Hollande a few days earlier.

It followed a French proposal to the Saudis within the framework of donor countries for the Lebanese army. Riyadh agreed to fork out $3bn.

Saudi Arabia's generosity surprised the French. It may simply have been down to good timing since the Kingdom was at that point on a public mission to combat Islamist terrorism, notably that posed by Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda.

These groups had expanded their presence into Syria and Iraq and sought further expansion into neighbouring countries.

France's three-phase plan calls for international support to strengthen the Lebanese army with financial aid, equipment, and training.

The Saudi money was to help the Lebanese army confront extremist organisations along the Lebanon-Syria border during the Syrian civil war.

It was also in line with an international consensus among Americans, Europeans, and Russians that Lebanon needed help to bolster its defence capabilities after multiple IS attempts to breach Lebanon's borders.

Terrorist attacks within Lebanon and violent clashes along its eastern borders, in areas such as Arsal and Ras Baalbek, only served to demonstrate the urgency.

The Saudi money helped equip the Lebanese army with European and American weaponry to help secure Lebanon's eastern border.

Guarding the gates

World powers knew the importance of preventing the spread of radical Islamism through a protected Lebanese border.

They also knew that if these groups did get a foothold in Lebanon, with its 1.5 million refugees, that would heighten the regional security risks tenfold.

After the Saudi money came in, Lebanese and French military chiefs met to coordinate an armament plan and set up delivery schedules based on the abilities of French military manufacturers.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, became critical of the Lebanese army, questioning its effectiveness and performance and highlighting the political and sectarian nature of its senior appointments (rather than being based on ability and merit).

Lebanese soldiers at the border with Israel on June 11, 2023.

The militia also pointed out that the American missiles provided to the Lebanese army were similar to those it supplied to armed factions in Syria, giving Beirut no qualitative advantage over Syrian non-state actors.

Such criticism and questioning should be expected, however. Hezbollah is Lebanon's most potent fighting force, and its goal is to prevent the Lebanese army from achieving full operational readiness and border control capabilities.

If achieved, this would undermine Hezbollah's justification for maintaining arms, which it says is to defend Lebanon and hinder Iran's strategic goals in Syria.

The pressure built. Finally, in February 2016, there was an announcement: the Saudis were suspending their $3bn package for Lebanon. The reason? Lebanon's failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

Privately, the Saudis were livid. They saw Beirut's repeated failure to condemn the attacks as evidence that Hezbollah was ultimately in control. Those Saudi billions could, therefore, have gone into Hezbollah's pockets. 

As Lebanon's most potent force, Hezbollah doesn't want the army to achieve full operational readiness.

The hand of Iran

Tehran increased pressure on Saudi Arabia and mobilised its proxies to diminish the Kingdom's influence. Iran's broader strategy was to undermine Riyadh at every turn.

The 2014 coup in Yemen against then-President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, followed by an offensive by the Iran-backed Houthis, should be seen in this light. Throughout the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia were locking horns indirectly.

In March 2015, a Saudi-led Arab coalition launched a military operation in support of Yemen's legitimate Hadi government, which had called for help. Months later, the Saudi embassy in Tehran was torched, and the Saudi flag was desecrated.

In February 2016, Saudi Arabia and Iran severed ties. Bahrain, Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia also cut links to the Islamic Republic.

It was in this feverish atmosphere that the $3bn for Lebanon's army (plus $1bn for the Lebanese security services) was jettisoned.

Lebanon had not condemned Iran over the Saudi diplomatic missions attack, had not supported the Saudis in their Yemen operation, and had not supported the Islamic coalition against terror in 2014. Endearing behaviour, this was not.

Although the grant was never completed, Saudi Arabia showed that it could make quick decisions and move fast amounts of money within hours (Riyadh disbursed an initial $500mn before it ran into problems).

Yet the French plan was improvised. It lacked realism and failed to consider that the Lebanese people aspired to a state with a constitution, institutional legitimacy, and the rule of law.

Tehran played a central role in undermining the Saudi grant by igniting conflicts in Yemen and challenging Saudi legitimacy. The Houthis (which Iran supports) threatened vital Saudi economic installations, too.

When Lebanon refused to condemn the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, it demonstrated that Iran had usurped Lebanon's decision-making authority.

Hezbollah militants and supporters attend the funeral of Ali al-Debs, one of the militant group's commanders killed by an Israeli air raid two days earlier, in Lebanon's southern city of Nabatieyh on February 16, 2024.

Why the plan failed

The French proposal exhibited several weaknesses that ultimately led to its failure. The first was a willingness to coexist with Iranian influence in Lebanon.

A second weakness was Iran's (not misguided) belief that a deal could be reached only through direct negotiations with the United States concerning Lebanon.

The recognition that security along Lebanon's southern and eastern borders is interconnected underscores the multifaceted nature of Lebanon's challenges — from external aggression to internal vulnerabilities.

The latter can include such activities as weapons smuggling, militant operations, and illicit cross-border trade.

Threats from the south from Israeli aggression and threats from the east from non-state actors (from trafficking to militant infiltration) only sharpen the Lebanese populace's acute understanding of their geopolitical reality.

The flow of arms through the eastern borders into southern Lebanon further stresses the need for a comprehensive strategy to address security across the entire nation. Erstwhile piecemeal solutions have been ineffective.

The Lebanese army could play a bigger role in restoring peace and stability post-conflict were it not for the army's limited capabilities and military equipment.

It is still a key player in the context, provided it gets support in terms of equipment. Indeed, major global powers, particularly the US, are moving away from the strategy of proxy warfare and support of non-state actors.

This has let Iran in, utilising militias and operating under sectarian or ideological banners to sow instability across various countries in the region.

Lebanon is a microcosm of these longstanding conflicts in countries like Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, and beyond. Most still hope the problems can be contained.

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