BICOM Analysis: Where stands the Lebanese Armed Forces?


Key points

  • The recent skirmish on the Israel-Lebanon border raises questions about the role of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which receive extensive Western support.
  • The incident comes against the backdrop of internal Lebanese tensions. The tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is expected to indict senior members of the Lebanese Shia organisation, Hezbollah.
  • Some suspect Hezbollah’s hand in the recent skirmish, and that the organisation may be supporting provocations on the border to focus attention on Israel, and away from its involvement in the Hariri assassination.
  • Whether Hezbollah was involved or not, the border incident calls for close scrutiny of the LAF, its relationship with Hezbollah, and whether it is truly capable of being a unifying and stabilising force in Lebanon.

Introduction: Questions raised by recent events

The shooting incident in Lebanon, which resulted in the death of IDF Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari, two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist, was the most serious outbreak of violence in the border area since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The Lebanese Armed Forces opened fire on IDF troops pruning trees over the border fence, but still clearly on Israel’s side of the border. UNIFIL officials confirmed that IDF troops did not cross the border prior to the incident.

Tension has increased on the border as Hezbollah has increased the size and quality of its missile arsenal aimed at Israel. This tension is accompanied by a looming political crisis inside Lebanon, which stems from the possible imminent indictments against those suspected of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

The main suspect for the Hariri murder is the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, or elements within it. Hezbollah has been engaged in a propaganda campaign in recent weeks, in which it has sought to maintain that Israel was responsible for the murder. Tensions are high in Lebanon because of a fear that Hezbollah may choose to react violently, should the tribunal indict its members.

The violent incident on the border highlights an additional problem, which is the role being played by the Lebanese Armed Forces. The LAF has benefitted greatly in recent years from US and French assistance. The force is promoted as the defender and guarantor of the democratically elected government in Lebanon. Since 2006, the United States has given $600 million of security aid. But the view of the LAF as simply the non-political army of the elected Lebanese government is under strain.

Sections of the LAF are influenced by pro-Hezbollah sentiment. There is evidence of a certain crossover and coordination between Hezbollah and elements within the LAF. This has serious implications both for the implementation of international law in southern Lebanon, and more generally, the political crisis facing the country.

The Hariri tribunal and tension in Lebanon

The UN appointed Special Tribunal for Lebanon was long reckoned to be focusing on the Syrian regime as its main suspect. In recent months, however, there has been a shift toward the view that Hezbollah was probably responsible. Recently, senior Hezbollah figures, including Mustafa Badreddine, brother in law of assassinated senior Hezbollah military operative Imad Mughniyeh, have been mentioned as possible suspects.

In response, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has held a series of incendiary press conferences, alleging an ‘Israeli project’ or ‘scheme’ is targeting the ‘resistance’ in Lebanon (i.e. Hezbollah) and is attempting to frame it for the murder of Hariri. Hezbollah’s intention is to turn the issue of the tribunal into a patriotic matter for the Lebanese. It can then portray Hezbollah’s opposition to it as representing the national will, and proponents of the tribunal as traitors.

Hezbollah is the strongest military force in Lebanon. The democratically elected coalition government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which includes Hezbollah, has no independent force capable of opposing it. Hezbollah may believe that threatening renewed civil strife will be sufficient to intimidate its opponents into joining its opposition to the tribunal. In May 2008, when the central government sought to move against it, Hezbollah swiftly took over West Beirut. Elements opposed to Hezbollah did not resist it, out of a desire to avoid another civil war.

Hezbollah traditionally garners national legitimacy by depicting itself as the ‘resistance’ to Israel. If Hezbollah’s strategy is to deflect attention from the Hariri tribunal, including by raising tensions along the border with Israel, then it is a worrying development.

The Lebanese Army: instrument of Lebanese sovereignty or Hezbollah stooge?

Can the Lebanese Armed Forces defend Lebanese institutions, prevent civil strife, and act as a counterweight to Hezbollah? The LAF does not currently appear able to play this role. Despite considerable investment from the US, today’s LAF is inferior to Hezbollah in its military abilities and level of training. But the more fundamental problems is its sectarian make-up, and the political leanings of many of its senior commanders.

Lebanon is a deeply divided society and the make-up of the LAF reflects this. It is estimated that around 60% of rank and file troops and 30% of officers of the LAF are Shia. The LAF’s Shia Lebanese soldiers, come from the same communities as Hezbollah’s fighters. It is hard to imagine these men confronting Hezbollah. The last time that the movement openly challenged the authority of the government, in May 2008, the LAF stood aside.

This situation undermines the army’s ability to impose the government’s authority. It has also directly affected the extent to which UN Security Council Resolution 1701 has been enforced. After the 2006 war, the LAF deployed in southern Lebanon, taking official control of the border. It was supposed to assert Lebanese state authority in place of Hezbollah. But the official position of the LAF is one of “endorsement” of Hezbollah’s “right to resist.” The LAF defines Israel as its “primary antagonist and enemy.”

Though the border has in general been quiet since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, tension has been growing due to Hezbollah rearmament. Hezbollah has largely succeeded in rebuilding its infrastructure south of the Litani River. This has taken place contrary to UN Resolution 1701, and with the tacit consent of the LAF. The LAF have avoided entering the populated areas where Hezbollah stores its weapons. Elements of the LAF are also suspected of informing Hezbollah prior to any possible incursions.

The result is that the army has replaced Hezbollah as the main visible armed presence in southern Lebanon but has had no other noticeable impact. This is not primarily because the LAF has been intimidated by Hezbollah. Rather, it is because large parts of the LAF, particularly in the South of Lebanon, share Hezbollah’s agenda, or at least have no interest in confronting the organisation.

This was dramatically reflected in the events which resulted in the death of Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari. One possible interpretation of the events is that the Lebanese government in Beirut is seeking to assert that it, and not Hezbollah, is the defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty. However, according to UNIFIL and Israeli intelligence sources, the order to fire upon IDF troops clearing bushes on the Israeli side of the border was given by an LAF brigade commander sympathetic to Hezbollah. Details have emerged which seem to indicate a planned provocation. Six journalists from the pro-Hezbollah media were present at the scene, having been invited in advance. The decision to target an IDF officer with sniper fire also appears to reflect a clear decision to escalate the situation. The officer was at an observation post behind the fence, and in a separate location from the IDF forces clearing the trees.

The most worrying possibility is that this was a deliberate provocation initiated by Hezbollah, in line with a strategy of increasing tension with Israel to divert attention from the Hariri tribunal. If such a strategy is being pursued, it makes the Israel-Lebanon border even more unstable than before.  If, alternatively, it was an LAF brigade commander acting unilaterally, the implications are hardly less serious, since they are a troubling indication of the loyalties and sentiments prevalent in the LAF.

As recently as 28 July, incoming head of US Central Command, General James Mattis, defended US military support for the LAF. He outlined a policy of, “building capabilities in the Lebanese Armed Forces to provide an even-handed counterweight to the influences of Syria and Hezbollah.” He added that, “A strong and effective Lebanese Armed Forces provides a pillar of stability for the Government of Lebanon and its citizens to lean upon.” Recent events highlight the challenges in this approach, and call for close scrutiny of whether it can really be made to work.

What are the implications for the Israel-Lebanon border?

The prospects for further escalation are considerable. The war of 2006 began as a result of a Hezbollah provocation, in which they failed to anticipate the extent of Israel’s response. It was not because of any conscious decision by either side to go to war. The Lebanese border has been particularly tense this year, because of reports of Syrian transfer of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah. Because of Israeli restraint, the border incident last week did not lead to a major confrontation. Israel has enjoyed a year and a half of relative quiet on its borders, and there is strong will at the political level and among the public to continue the calm and avoid conflict. But IDF defensive doctrine is based on strong deterrence, created through swift responses to acts of aggression on Israel’s borders. Further provocations will place Israeli decision makers in a very difficult position, in deciding whether a more substantial response is required to reassert Israeli deterrence.