Monday, February 27, 2017

The problem of the Lebanese army - Elliot Abrams

by Elliot Abrams

cooperation between Hezbollah and the ‎Lebanese army may be increasing. In this context, should U.S. aid to the LAF continue?

Should the United States be giving military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces ‎‎(LAF)? According to the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon (speaking last summer), "In this year ‎alone we provided over $221 million in equipment and training to the Lebanese security ‎forces." That number presumably includes aid to Lebanon's police and Internal Security ‎Forces, but given the small size of the country, it is a hefty sum.‎

Lebanon is a friendly country, an American ally against jihadi groups like al-Qaida and ISIS, and a ‎sort of democracy. But it is also the home of the terrorist group Hezbollah, which largely ‎dominates its politics and makes its democracy a sometime thing. It's fair to say that ‎nothing happens in Lebanon without Hezbollah's approval, no matter how elections turn ‎out.‎

Lebanon's new president is legitimizing Hezbollah's military role -- which is independent ‎from control by the Lebanese state (despite repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions ‎demanding that there be no militias in Lebanon outside state control). The collaboration ‎between Hezbollah and the LAF may be growing: A Times of Israel article on February 12 ‎about the Lebanon/Israel border area said, "On the Israeli side, officials are following, ‎almost in astonishment, the deepening cooperation between the Lebanese army and ‎Hezbollah." Lebanese President Michel Aoun responded by saying of Hezbollah, "As long as ‎the Lebanese army is not strong enough to battle Israel ... we feel the need for its ‎existence." When Israel's U.N. envoy wrote to the U.N. Security Council about Hezbollah ‎violations of resolutions concerning Lebanon, the response from Aoun's office was, "Any ‎attempt to hurt Lebanese sovereignty or expose the Lebanese to danger will find the ‎appropriate response."‎

So, Aoun appears to be defining Hezbollah's interests as Lebanon's interests, and defining ‎Hezbollah not as a militia whose existence clearly violates U.N. Security Council resolutions ‎but rather as a necessary defense against Israel. In fact, he said more: that Hezbollah is ‎needed to "battle" Israel.‎

Such rhetoric may be dismissed as a price the Christian president must pay, if it is only ‎rhetoric. More dangerous is the news that cooperation between Hezbollah and the ‎Lebanese army may be increasing. In this context, should U.S. aid to the LAF continue? I ‎find it a difficult question. Stopping the aid might only further weaken the LAF, which is not ‎under Hezbollah command -- though it certainly refuses to confront the terrorist group. The ‎commander of the LAF is always a Christian and the chief of staff is always a Druze, and ‎the Global Security website suggests that Shia Lebanese "comprise 25% of the enlisted ‎ranks. At the same time, the army was able to bring the Christians to 25% and the ‎Sunni/Druze component to 50% of the enlisted ranks." It can be argued that weakening the ‎LAF could further weaken non-Hezbollah influence in Lebanon.‎

If it is true that LAF-Hezbollah cooperation is increasing, the United States should demand ‎that this trend be halted and reversed. It is one thing for the LAF to refuse to confront ‎Hezbollah, and quite another to assist it in any way. Our aid should give us the leverage to ‎achieve that much. My own bottom line for now is that we should not end aid to the LAF, ‎but should make it very clear that this aid is in danger. Lebanese officials must come to ‎realize that even if the withholding of aid weakens the LAF, that's the inevitable outcome ‎unless they keep further away from Hezbollah than current trends appear to suggest.‎

Elliot Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams' blog "Pressure Points."


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