Why does the US fund the Lebanese Army?

Hasan Illaik, The Cradle, June 30, 2023 —

The Lebanese Armed Forces, despite representing a sovereign state on paper, have long faced influence from western governments and militaries, undermining Lebanese law, chain of command, and national security.

In 2019, the Lebanese government faced the pressing challenge of reducing the number of public sector workers, including those in security and military institutions, in order to curb government spending.

Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab found himself embroiled in a dispute with General Joseph Aoun, the army Commander-in-Chief, as he tried to ascertain the number of personnel in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

Despite his efforts, the minister was unable to obtain any official documentation confirming the number of personnel in the army, which is estimated to be around 84,000.

Interestingly, two years prior to this, the then-British Ambassador to Lebanon, Chris Rampling, proudly declared that the UK had trained some 10,000 Lebanese soldiers within the country. He even declared that:

“I’m really proud to hand over a UK training certificate to the ten thousandth soldier who graduated from here. It is a sign of our commitment to train, which has now reached almost one third of the Lebanese Army’s fighting force. We are committed to our partnership with the Lebanese Army with actions and not just words.”

Influence of US and British governments

It is quite astonishing that the British ambassador possesses knowledge of the size of the army’s fighting force, estimating it to be around 30,000 soldiers and officers, while the Lebanese Minister of Defense remains clueless about such crucial information.

However, at issue is not solely the numbers but the decision-making process within the LAF and the extent to which the US and British governments, their ambassadors, and their allies exert influence in it.

In Lebanon, there is a sense of cynicism surrounding the regularity of news regarding the US ambassador’s visits to the army commander’s office. The focus, many argue, should instead be on days when the US ambassador does not pay a visit.

The behavior exhibited by the army commander in this regard extends beyond the US and British ambassadors to encompass nearly all NATO country envoys. Such news has become customary in Lebanon, prompting locals to treat it as “normal.”

For instance, on 30 November, 2021, the British Embassy in Beirut announced that:

“The ambassadors of Britain, Ian Collard, the United States of America, Dorothy Shea, and Canada, Chantal Chastenay, met with the Army Commander, General Joseph Aoun, to discuss the security of the Lebanese-Syrian border, during the meeting of the Higher Supervisory Committee on the Aid Program for the Protection of Land Borders.”

During the meeting, then British ambassador Collard announced that London had donated $1.4 million “to strengthen LAF’s resilience with spare parts for Land Rovers previously donated by the UK Government and for protective personal equipment for female soldiers deployed on border operations.”

Disregard for Lebanese Law

It is an unusual occurrence for the ambassadors of three countries to publicly disclose discussions regarding a neighboring country’s border protection plan with its army commander. Lebanon, perhaps uniquely, allows an ambassador from a foreign country (in this case, the UK) to announce the direct financial aid granted to members of the army and internal security forces.

This announcement was made in the presence of the army commander and the general director of the police force, without any representative from the government, to which these two institutions belong, being present.

The relationship between the LAF and NATO countries, spearheaded by Washington and London, disregards Lebanese law, which stipulates that approval from the Council of Ministers is required to accept any donation from a foreign entity.

Zina Akar, the former Minister of Defense from 2020 to 2021, shares with The Cradle an incident where she received a call from the Italian embassy inviting her to a ceremony for the donation handover to the LAF.

Akar asked the army commander: “Did the donation get the approval of the Council of Ministers? Why do I know about it from the Italian embassy and not from the army command?” He is said to have replied that the government did not know about the donation and that he would later send a request for approval! “It always happens that way,” the commander explained.

Lebanon may also be the only country in the world in which the director of the CIA proposes, during a dinner with his deputy and Lebanese officers, to promote a Lebanese officer to the rank of major general and appoint him as a member of the military council.

It should be noted that Lebanon is definitely the only country in the world where a journalist can obtain information about a business dinner held “in honor” of the CIA director and his deputy. Additionally, in Lebanon, the deputy director of the CIA appears in the local mainstream media.

A similar incident took place in August 2022, when a video was published of Hezbollah official Wafiq Safa refusing to shake hands with a person who was said to be the director of the CIA in Lebanon while condoling the death of the father of the former director general of General Security. The deputy director’s name is Johnny Johnson, and he served in Turkiye, Egypt, France, and Iraq before moving to Lebanon.

Maintaining western hegemony

These instances serve as examples of the US’ abnormal behavior, and these situations imposed on Lebanon by the US and its allies are to ensure its continued influence over the Lebanese army in the context of consolidating western hegemony in the region.

This influence is achieved through various means:

  • Ensuring that NATO countries and their allies remain the sole providers of arms and financing for the army. In 2008, Lebanon succumbed to US pressure, supported by political forces allied with the west and the Persian Gulf states, and rejected a generous Russian donation that included 10 MiG-29 planes, 77 tanks, artillery, and an assortment of weapons and ammunition.

Since then, no cooperation agreement between Lebanon and Russia has been approved by the Lebanese government or parliament to allow the LAF to benefit from Russian aid.

  • Propagating false information that emphasizes the indispensability of the relationship with Washington for the survival of the LAF suggests that the army would be unable to sustain itself without American weapons and ammunition.

However, between 2006 and 2018, US military aid to Lebanon amounted to a mere $1.28 billion, averaging $100 million annually. Prior to the banking sector collapse in 2019, Lebanon allocated significantly more funds to salaries and servicing public debt, indicating that it could have foregone US assistance.

Nonetheless, the ruling elite in Lebanon is divided between Washington’s allies, who enthusiastically comply with its directives, and opponents, who fear straining their relationship with the army should they publicly reject US aid.

  • Restricting the training of LAF officers exclusively to the US and its NATO allies. Even during the Syrian military presence in Lebanon before 2005, American training for army officers continued unabated.

“But at that point, things were very well controlled. The impact of these exercises within the army, at the command level, was very small,” an anonymous, high-ranking military source tells The Cradle.

Paradoxical relationship

Army officers explain that western training is not fundamentally different from that of the east. The Lebanese army does not possess advanced weapons, and it does not have vast areas to fight in, nor does it have offensive or defensive plans.

Western training, according to Lebanese military sources, aims to familiarize army personnel and officers with a western military approach.

“What western countries seek is to make the army’s soldiers and officers part of the western system,” a high-ranking officer tells The Cradle, pointing out that the army officers who underwent military courses in Syria have been retired, while the majority of the current officers are graduates of western training courses.

Western training programs primarily focus on special forces, which consist of approximately 17,000 soldiers from special regiments and border regiments. These programs aim to prepare the LAF to combat irregular forces rather than directly confront the Israeli army.

Public statements from US diplomats, military personnel, and members of Congress make it clear that US military aid to the LAF is intended to enhance its capability to address the Hezbollah “threat.”

A senior Lebanese officer tells The Cradle:

“The Americans are not stupid. They realize that the army will not enter into a confrontation with Hezbollah in the foreseeable future. But they want to prepare it to be able to end Hezbollah’s military presence the day after any defeat inflicted by the Americans and the Israelis on Hezbollah in the future.”

The paradox lies in the fact that while the west supports Israel, which the LAF considers its primary enemy, the relationship between the LAF and the west is not subject to oversight by the Lebanese government or parliament.

Confessional complications

Due to Lebanon’s complex political and sectarian dynamics, no political force in the country dares to hold the army command accountable. Even on the security level, this relationship with the west remains unscrutinized.

In 2009, the head of the Special Forces School, Colonel Mansour Jayab, was arrested by Army Intelligence on charges of dealing with Israeli intelligence. Three other officers were arrested on the same charge, while two officers fled abroad. Colonel Jayab, who admitted to being recruited by the Israelis in the 1990s during a training course in the US, was convicted by a military court.

However, this incident did not lead to any significant protests or demands from security or political officials in Lebanon for American guarantees that such occurrences would not happen again. The responsibility for this breach of the Lebanese army was not attributed to the US, even though the recruitment took place while the officer was under the custody of the US army.

US influence in the LAF can be traced back to the 1950s. This influence fluctuated depending on the political authority and its foreign policy. Since 1990, Lebanon’s foreign relations have been influenced by the distinction between Lebanese-Syrian relations and the unification of the foreign policy of the two countries.

Following the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon in 2005, a political vacuum emerged in Beirut due to the division between western supporters and their opponents, leading to a lack of clear foreign policy.

Taking advantage of this vacuum, the US established a strong influence within the LAF. Under the current Commander-in-Chief, this influence has reached unprecedented levels. While some attribute this to General Joseph Aoun’s ambition to become president, a high-ranking Lebanese officer informs The Cradle that Aoun has surpassed his predecessor, General Jean Kahwaji, in terms of aligning with the US.

Lebanon’s divided foreign policy

Aoun’s affinity for the west is evident in his actions. Upon assuming his position, he replaced Russian weapons (such as the AK47 assault rifle) under the pretext of logistical reasons and weapons unification.

During his tenure, US soldiers stationed at two Lebanese army bases operated drones under the guise of training Lebanese officers, allowing them to conduct reconnaissance tours over Lebanese territory, sources in the armed forces tell The Cradle.

Initially aligned with former President Michel Aoun, who was an ally of Hezbollah, Joseph Aoun, the current army commander, quickly shifted his stance and is now accused by those close to the former statesman of being fully aligned with the US in Lebanon.

Joseph Aoun is set to retire on 10 January, 2024. If he does not become president, the next army commander will face the significant challenge of restoring balance within the LAF and preventing it from being used as a tool for US imperial projects in the region.

This task is particularly difficult given the restrictions on arming and training, which have been limited to the US and their allies. Additionally, the US has become a more important source of financial support, providing monthly payments of $100 per soldier and officer in the LAF for a period of six months due to the decline in their salaries since the country’s financial collapse in 2019.

Politically, Lebanon’s ability to formulate a unified foreign policy based on its own interests, which would facilitate cooperation between the army and foreign forces, is not expected. International relations have been a contentious aspect of Lebanon’s political conflicts since at least 2005, and it is unlikely that this conflict will be resolved in the near future.

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