Five reasons LAF will keep Lebanon stable

Five reasons LAF will keep Lebanon stable

The recent military operations at the Sunni border town of Arsal highlight that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will remain crucial to holding the country together amid its political crisis.

The Lebanese border town Arsal has been the haven for roughly 120,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the Syrian civil war. It wasn’t long before militant factions using the town as a base found themselves in direct confrontation with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Fear is widespread that Islamic State (IS) is starting a new front in Lebanon.

The crisis has again drawn international attention to whether the Lebanese military is still able to act as the neutral arbiter of Lebanon’s tense political landscape. Here are five signs that have shown that the Lebanese military is still the primary institution holding the country together:

1. Funding

The LAF, now at an estimated 72,000 troops, has received several substantial boosts in funding since December 2013. Saudi Arabia donated $3 billion to the Lebanese army to combat terrorism after the assassination of a pro-western March 14 alliance politician Mohamad Chatah. Former President Michel Suleiman said the aid would be used to buy military equipment from France. Saudi Arabia announced an additional $1 billion after the clashes in Arsal.

Since 2006, the US has made the training of the Lebanese military one of its top priorities in the Middle East. In 2010 aid was only halted once for three months after a brief clash between LAF and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The US Congress, however, remains wary of Hezbollah’s current role in the Lebanese government. The risk is that funding will be slow and sporadic. Some critics say it will take years for the money to make any significant impact.

2. Weapons upgrades

Another problem is the lack of basic supplies and logistical training, according to a former Pentagon official. Many Lebanese soldiers use personal mobile phones for in-field communication.

The LAF has urgently been upgrading its heavy equipment. Some tanks date back to the 1950s. The US has donated 200 M113 APC vehicles to the Lebanese army. France gave assurances it would expedite the delivery of new weapons.

Structural organization also continues to remain “top-heavy”, with about one general for every 100 soldiers.

3. Lebanese population support

The Lebanese population is largely supportive of the LAF. In the wake of the battle for Arsal, a telecom campaign allowed citizens to make mobile donations to the army. The country is still hoping to avoid a repeat of the Lebanese civil war.

Faysal Itani, with the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. explained, “The Sunnis in Lebanon don’t have a strong culture of militancy, nothing that could contend with Hezbollah. And there isn’t much appetite for large-scale violence against Shias. That hasn’t changed yet.”

4. The Sunni elite and Hezbollah’s interests are aligned

The specter of IS raising its head in Lebanon has given the Saudis and Syrian government a common foe. There are indications that violence by extremists is declining due to intelligence sharing cooperation between the March 8 and March 14 rivals. However, since Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian conflict, the Saudis believe they have a way to widen their influence in Lebanon. This would be dangerous as pitting the army against Shia Hezbollah would raise sectarian tensions. The LAF is about 42 percent Sunni.

As Syrian Sunni groups cross the border to engage Hezbollah for its involvement in the Syrian conflict, the LAF may find itself taking on an increasingly active role in confronting these actors. This could antagonize Sunnis enlisted in the army. More Sunnis are making up basic conscripts in the LAF and come from areas of low literacy rates and high unemployment.

The common threat of terrorism has seemingly brought the warring political factions to a temporary understanding. There are signs that the LAF is largely cooperating with Hezbollah on the operations around Arsal. Hezbollah has been seeking LAF assistance in securing the border regions.

5. Experience and intelligence sharing

The LAF has repeatedly treaded carefully between the delicate lines of power in Lebanon. The military has fought campaigns against the Palestinian militant faction, Fatah al-Islam in the northern Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in 2007. It also acts as a barrier between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in Tripoli and has resisted calls to disarm Hezbollah.

The US is even tacitly allowing information to make its way to Hezbollah’s intelligence network in cooperation with the Lebanese government. Lebanese intelligence agencies are also showing increased success in preventing terrorist plots.

By the end of the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah will find itself degraded militarily. A weak Syrian state, lack of support in the Arab world, along with a rapprochement of the US and Iran becoming more likely may find Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon diminished or to eventually integrate into the LAF. In the meantime, the LAF will continue to act as a barrier between armed groups and take on politically safe security operations in the country.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris