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Factional Politics Limit Effectiveness of Lebanon Army

The Lebanese Armed Forces are well trained and armed, but handicapped by Lebanese politics.
Relatives of car bomb victims inspect the damaged cars at the bomb explosion site in front of al-Salam mosque in the port city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon August 24, 2013. Bombs hit two mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday, killing at least 42 people and wounding hundreds, intensifying sectarian strife that has spilled over from the civil war in neighbouring Syria. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi (LEBANON - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) - RTX12UWT

"This damn army …" Those are the first words pronounced by Nader Kabbara when asked about the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). A 19-year-old student from Tripoli, he is standing next to Al-Salam mosque ready to clean the visible damage along with a dozen volunteers. Just 24 hours before, on Aug. 23 and right after the end of the Friday prayer, a car bomb exploded a few meters away from the mosque. A few minutes after, a second one blew up at another mosque a couple of kilometers from Al-Salam. The death toll has risen to 47, exceeding the previous week's attack in the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahiyeh, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, and making the double blast the deadliest attack since the end of the civil war in 1990.

"The problem is that the army works for only one part of the country," continues Nader, "everybody knows for who and we don't want them here."

Minutes after both blasts occurred, soldiers approached the sites of the explosions. They were stoned by residents, had to leave and limited their presence in the city to several checkpoints on the main avenues. The growing security breaches in Lebanon since the start of the Syrian conflict 2 1/2 years ago calls into question the role of the army and its ability to contend with escalating violence and impose stability. Many Lebanese doubt that LAF has the military capacity to do it, and they point to the 15 soldiers who died in Tripoli in different incidents last year as an example.

"The qualification and tradecraft are not the issue," says Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert on strategic and military dynamics in the region, "because the LAF’s overall training and readiness has increased exponentially since the army has been receiving external aid and training" from foreign countries. Others also acknowledge it's not an issue of professionalism. "The weakness of the army is not in terms of its capabilities," explains Bassel Sallouhk, an associate professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University. "The weakness of the LAF is a consequence of the sectarianized environment in Lebanon and the paralysis on the political establishment."

The numbers back up this claim even if they are not officially known: Lebanon has one of the most opaque defense budgets in the world. The Lebanese army, with around 70.000 active military personnel, has one of the highest ratios of personnel to civilians. And the annual budget ranks in 5th position out of 10 countries in the Middle East, according to a study from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In 2012, the government budget allocated $1.75 billion to the military, which represents 4.1% of GDP.

The weakness is manifest in political determinants and compromises. Lebanon's political system is based on a sectarian division of power that ensures none of the different communities are marginalized. But this system, reinforced after the civil war, has its drawbacks: each institution is seen as belonging to a community. The army was an exception, but not anymore. "Until recently, Lebanese used to think that the only institution that they could all rally around was the LAF," says Salloukh. "This I don't think is the case anymore and it will only lead to greater insecurity and penetration."

The main reason behind the rejection of the Lebanese Army by Tripoli inhabitants like Nader is that they consider it as being inextricably linked to Hezbollah. Tripoli is a major Sunni city and supportive of Syrian opposition in its fight against the regime, contrary to the stance of the party led by Hassan Nasrallah, who has offered military help to Bashar al-Assad. The tensions between the Party of God and its Sunni political counterpart, the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, have been exacerbated since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, as the divisions were already deep.

"They only fight against one side, us!" exclaims Mohammad while cleaning a shop, completely burned after the blast which exploded next to Al-Taqwa mosque. Tripolitans accuse the army of acting only against Sunni groups or citizens, pointing to the example of the battle against Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and his supporters in the southern city of Sidon last June. Assir challenged the military by forming a 50-strong militia in the neighborhood of Abra, until the army decided to intervene and the sheikh was forced to flee the city.

"During the civil war, regional factors and internal sectarian divides caused the army to split," said former general Wehbe Katisha in a statement to the NOW website, "and today, as the sectarian rhetoric increases, people do fear a similar scenario." While Katisha doesn't think those events will lead to a divide in the army — as its composition is representative of the diversity of the country, he does believe that recent events "will leave deep scars" on the Lebanese. Nearly 70% of the active personnel of the army is Sunni or Shiite and divided almost equally between the two Muslim communities.

These divisions and the lack of agreement to form a government prevent the army from deploying its full potential. "You also have the reality that Lebanon does not have a sitting government that has full legitimacy and backing to support more aggressive LAF internal security operations," says Aram Nerguizian of CSIS. "Deployments to Tripoli, Saida, Arsal, Qaa or Dahiyeh are always going to be extremely difficult in Lebanon" he continues, "where the LAF does not have a broad cross-confessional mandate to conduct aggressive and preemptive 'high intensity internal security operations.'" 

Salloukh agrees with him: "There are parts of the country where the army feels it cannot go anymore, such as the north."

But not only that. In Dahiyeh, the southern suburb of Beirut and a stronghold of Hezbollah, the military presence in the aftermath of the attack where 30 people were killed and as many as 300 injured was almost non-existent. Instead, the security services of Hezbollah and Amal were deployed in a large number at every road leading into the suburb, stopping cars and forcing foreign journalists to leave. "This is Hezbollah territory," said one of the security guys while driving two European journalists out of Dahiyeh after interrogating them for an hour.

Growing security breaches make the task very difficult for the army. An example of it is the situation along the border with Syria, where weapons are smuggled and fighters go inside the neighboring country to support both sides. "You currently have five active, official border crossings into Syria and about 178 illegal," says Nerguizian.

Many people held political parties responsible for not empowering the army's prerogatives. Salloukh thinks that "nobody in the political establishment wants a strong army because they would become weak, as the substate actors, so: Why would you like to strain a national institution?".

"Lebanon’s warring communal factions — like Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement — are increasingly wary of entrusting security to institutions they do not completely control, or trust to conduct operations in ways that they consider to serve their own interests," says Nerguizian.

While the political division deepens, insecurity in Lebanon is festering. More weapons are being piled into the country, as becomes obvious every time there is a fight in Tripoli and men rush into their houses to pick up a gun or Kalashnikov. The continued deterioration in Syria is dragging Lebanon into it while the army is paralyzed by its stance of neutrality. This means not intervening if and when there is no agreement between the political parties and their proponents, which is a dangerously recurrent scenario. 

Nicolas Lupo is a Spanish freelance journalist living in Beirut. He has been covering events in different countries around Middle East for European magazines and newspapers. On Twitter: @niluso

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