Arming The Lebanese Army

The status and condition of the Lebanese Armed Forces seem to be a hot topic not only in Lebanon, but also in Paris and Washington these days.  Here’s something that doesn’t happen too frequently: an article in an otherwise generally decent Lebanese_newspaper , supplanted in terms of context, accuracy (if only on use of quotation marks), and informative detail, by a US governmental (Department of Defense to be precise)  press_release .

The news item relates to the provision of weaponry by the US to the Lebanese army.   While both the article and the press release discuss nothing groundbreaking or novel, they are interesting to read in that they provide specific numbers on different kinds of equipment shipped and to be shipped by the US, and also background on training programs offered.  For example, we learn that:

  • Lebanese officers are attending several US military colleges, and the International Military Education and Training fund for Lebanon has grown from $1.4 million in fiscal 2008 to $2.1 million this year;
  • Since 2006, the US has funneled more than $400 million in foreign military sales money to Lebanon;
  • The US has sent 285 Humvees to Lebanon, and another 312 will arrive by March;
  • The US has also sent 200 trucks and 41 M-198 155 mm artillery pieces;
  • The Lebanese army will get night-vision equipment and some tactical unmanned aerial vehicles;
  • 12 million rounds of ammo, spare helicopter parts, shoulder-fired rockets will be supplied; and
  • The US is committed to getting Lebanon more modern tanks, and the U.S. military is working on delivering M-60A3 tanks.

These numbers are based on quotes from DoD senior official Chris Straub, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near East and South Asian affairs.  While up to this point everything seems nice and rosy, there are, as expected, very important caveats with regard to the quantity and the nature of equipment supplied to the Lebanese army. Indeed, Straub adds: “We don’t have a conversation on these matters without considering the concerns of Israel and Israel’s qualitative military edge. That’s a U.S. commitment that we take very seriously.” (my emphasis)   The DoD press release then adds that “for example, the Lebanese army M-60 tanks are no match for Israel’s Mekava 4 main battle tanks.” What is the reason for this mismatch you ask? Straub explains: “We’re not trying to build up some juggernaut that could be threatening to anyone in the region, but to make the Lebanese armed forces capable in their own country.” 

Here is what is fundamentally wrong with this policy:  if the US thinks that propping up the Lebanese army just enough for it to provide a viable counterweight to Hezbollah will cause the latter to disintegrate or disappear, it will be sending weapons for a very, very long time with nothing changing in the situation on the ground. The reason for this is that Hezbollah is not competing with the Lebanese army ; Hezbollah is competing with Israel.  So long as the Lebanese army’s weaponry is weaker than that of Israel (which the US is on record as saying will be the case), Hezbollah will still be able to argue that the army is not strong enough to defend the country against Israeli aggression, and that its effort are needed.  And, indeed, it will be a very potent and correct argument to make.  The US policy in Lebanon basically seems to center on ways of fighting Hezbollah by proxy, that is, through the Lebanese army. But if Israel’s F-16’s were not able to annihilate Hezbollah in 2006, will the Lebanese army’s 597 Humvees be able to in 2009?

4 Responses

  1. so then what would u do if u were the US? you criticized the US policy- whats your alternative?

    How would it be possible to give the Lebanese army the heavy weapons it wants and still get Congressional approval?

    secondly, on paper, isnt the Lebanese Army already far more armed than Hezbollah? Does Hezbollah have anything close to the firepower you listed in these statistics? From what I udnerstand they dont. What makes Hezbollah so good at fighting is their discipline, cohesion, and strong sense in fighting for a purpsoe that their supporters are willing to die for and not their actual weapons. If this is true what difference would it make if the US provided even the same level of military equipment it provides Israel?

  2. Let me start with your second question, although I think my post already answers it. It doesn’t matter whether the Lebanese army is better armed than Hezbollah. In order for Hezbollah to lose its raison d’être, the Lebanese army has to be as well armed as the IDF, because that is the opponent Hezbollah sees itself as fighting. My argument is that if Lebanon were as militarily capable as Israel, there would not be a defensive vacuum that Hezbollah would feel it needs to fill. Now let open a parenthesis here, I’m only referring to Hezbollah’s roles in terms of foreign policy. If these military and defensive issues are resolved, Hezbollah might still continue to exist in Lebanon as a party representing Shia interests domestically. In that case, it would have to find an entirely new justification for being so well armed based on domestic political considerations. But that is not what this discussion is about. Returning to your question however, the difference it would it if the US provided Lebanon the same level of military equipment it provides Israel, would be that Hezbollah would not longer be able to brand itself as a necessary resistance force against Israeli agression, because the Lebanese state would be strong enough to assume that role.

    Now, with regard to arming the Lebanese army without running into all kinds of political obstacles, if we consider the improbable scenario where the US actually overcame Congressional opposition, AIPAC and allies opposition, Israeli opposition, Syrian opposition, and armed the Lebanese army to the teeth with sophisticated light weaponry, heavy artillery, warplanes, etc. you would have what I think would be the following interesting situation:

    – A balance of power between Israel and Lebanon, whereby neither would be able to agress the other;

    – Lebanon would be able to enforce its foreign policy demands against Syria. Lebanon would probably not want to pursue hegemonistic designs against Syria and find itself in a role reversal, because it never had any historical territorial claims over Greater Syria like Syria had over Lebanon. As well, Syria under the present regime is not suffering from any instability or conflict which would act as catalyst for a Lebanese invasion (ie there are no conditions similar to the Leb. civil war which coupled with Syria’s historical claims over Lebanon, caused it to invade and occupy Lebanon); and

    -Hezbollah’s military arm would lose its main justification for being, and the party would evolve into just another sectarian political party in Lebanon, along with all the typical dysfunctionalities and tired old discourse we have come to expect from such entities.

    Of course in the real world, as opposed to Blackstar-land, this scenario will never happen. But you would be hard pressed to argue against me that in the very, very long term, as opposed to the very near-sighted US policy presently in force, arming the Lebanese army to balance the IDF would not contribute to regional stability. What’s wrong with having 2 military heavyweights (or “juggernauts” as Straub said) in the Levant?

  3. Very interesting, especially the point about the Israeli military advantage always benefiting Hezbollah.
    My question is, with Hezbollah as part of the Lebanese government, how could Israel be assured that high tech or heavy weaponry sent to Lebanon will not end up in the hands of Hezbollah either legitimately, illegitimately or by Hezbollah somehow wielding whatever power it has in the government to have a share of the equipment sent to its forces?
    This isn’t just a question about Israeli security, but regional stability. How can arms be sent to Lebanon with a
    reasonable guarantee that they won’t end up strengthening Hezbollah. You make the comment about Israeli F-16 not being able to destroy Hezbollah in 2006, but remember, the act that started that war was the kidnapping of soldiers on the Israeli border which was done with little more than small arms. I’m not sure a Lebanese army on par with an Israeli one would even solve the problem. It seems that it will take as much political will as military muscle to confront Hezbollah.

  4. IRN BRU,
    I don’t disagree about the necessity for political will and a national, regional or even international dialogue to contront Hezbollah’s military arm. But I don’t think political dialogue alone will do. Hezbollah fills a security/defense/military vacuum in Lebanon, which cannot be addressed without necessarily looking at the reasons for Hezbollah’s existence: as a party representing Shiite interests internally, and as military defense mecanism against Israel. Although it’s not often covered in the Western media, Israeli fighter jets very regularly violate Lebanese airspace, and have been for decades. The Lebanese army is powerless against these acts that are in blatant violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Hezbollah, through major rhetoric, and some action, fills in the army’s powerlessness.

    With regard to the worries about weapons sent to the army falling in between Hezbollah’s hands, I concurr that it is a concern. However, I believe that strict measures to monitor where these weapons are going and some kind of system to constantly track their whereabouts would complicate if not impede their being transferred to someone other than their designated recipient. I think as well, that if the Lebanese army is receiving weapons, Hezbollah won’t really have a valid argument to raise as to why it should get the weapons instead of the country’s armed forces. Rememebr that the party runs in elections, and puts on an important public relations campaign. It has to be careful not to alienate the rest of the population and other sects, who generally respect and support the army.

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