Why Cutting Military Aid To Lebanon Would Be A Mistake

Why Cutting Military Aid To Lebanon Would Be A Mistake – Lebanese soldiers take cover behind their armored vehicle as they enter the Abra neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Sidon, where fighting has centered between the military and supporters of a Sunni Muslim cleric, on June 24, 2013. (Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images)

As Lebanon grapples with an economic crisis and the novel coronavirus pandemic, momentum is building in Washington to reduce or end US assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Such a move could lessen US influence and strengthen Russia and Iran. But the LAF is not helping its supporters make their case. The Lebanese military must address Hezbollah’s growing arsenal if the LAF is to retain US support.

Why Cutting Military Aid To Lebanon Would Be A Mistake

The United States has promoted close ties with the LAF for years “as the only legitimate defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty”. Pentagon leaders praise him as a capable partner. Since 2010, the United States has provided more than $1.8 billion in security assistance to the LAF. Among other things, the United States requires the LAF to fight the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah — an entity with American blood on its hands and a foreign terrorist organization under US law.

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The 2020 fiscal appropriations bill, signed into law by the president, reiterates that the purpose of US funding is to “professionalize the LAF to mitigate internal and external threats from non-state actors, including Hezbollah.” (“Hizbollah” is an alternate spelling for Hezbollah.)

The United States expects the LAF to use the funding to “enhance border security and fight terrorism” as well as “interdict the shipment of weapons and prevent the use of Lebanon as a safe haven for terrorist groups.”

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However, the LAF is unwilling to lift a finger against Hezbollah. The problem is that this can trigger an internal conflict. And the Lebanese want to avoid them at all costs, considering how harmful they’ve been in the past.

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To be clear, the problem is not one of capacity. A robust LAF capability was on display in August 2017, when the force used US-supplied equipment and munitions to conduct a successful counter-terrorism operation that eliminated terrorist groups linked to ISIS and Al Qaeda near the towns of Ras Baalbek and al -Qaa. According to a December 2019 report by the Office of Government Accountability, Pentagon officials note that Lebanon was the “only country in the region to successfully expel ISIS from its territory without the involvement of US ground forces.”

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But even so, there are serious questions about reports that the LAF coordinated with Hezbollah in the 2017 operation and others. The United States cannot support the LAF if it counts Hezbollah as one of its partners.

This explains the Pentagon conundrum. The US military, in line with the National Defense Strategy, increasingly seeks to rely on partners in the Middle East so that the United States can focus on great-power competition with China and Russia. And it’s good to have a capable army in Lebanon that can act effectively against Sunni terrorist organizations like ISIS, al-Qaida and their affiliates.

The then commander of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, testified in February 2019 that a “modest” US investment in the LAF created a “legitimate, modernized fighting force” with a demonstrated ability to conduct counterterrorism operations and “protect the Lebanese people from internal threats”. and external threats”.

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But the ability and the willingness to use that ability are two different things. The LAF’s refusal to fight Hezbollah has allowed the Iranian-backed terrorist group to carry out an extraordinary military buildup that includes some 150,000 rockets and missiles.

The LAF’s reluctance to address Hezbollah’s growing arsenal is particularly concerning in light of what General Votel called Hezbollah’s “provocative actions” that threaten Israel’s security and Lebanon’s “stability.”

That’s the bare minimum. A study nearly two years ago called Hezbollah’s terrorist militia “the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world.” Israeli officials say Hezbollah’s military capability exceeds that of many European states.

According to recent reports, Hezbollah is now stockpiling even more dangerous weapons. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is working with Hezbollah to set up facilities in Lebanon to convert rockets and unguided missiles into precision-guided munitions, or PGMs, that can safely hit within a few meters of their intended target. Hezbollah now has dozens of these PGMs, or even a few hundred. These weapons could allow Hezbollah to overwhelm Israeli defenses with PGMs, hitting strategic targets in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion Airport, the port of Haifa or the Dimona nuclear facility with potentially catastrophic effects.

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Lebanon Is Facing An Economic And Environmental Disaster

This is increasing political and military pressure on Israeli leaders to carry out a full-scale preemptive strike to prevent Hezbollah from launching a war against Israel that could inflict catastrophic damage. Such a preventive operation would devastate the lives and communities of thousands of Lebanese. This is because Hezbollah has deliberately placed a significant portion of its arsenal, warehouses and production facilities in civilian areas.

Even the most ardent supporters of continued US funding admit that during this buildup, the LAF was nowhere to be found. And the LAF’s inaction jeopardizes continued US funding.

In his testimony last year, General Votel implicitly acknowledged that the LAF is no longer a counterweight to Hezbollah. He said the LAF “has the potential to eventually form a deterrent to increased Iranian activity and a vital counterweight to Hezbollah’s influence.” That’s good news, but time is running out.

The Trump administration is famous for its scrutiny of US foreign aid, seeking and implementing significant cuts. Some of these cuts were prudent and many of them reckless. Regardless, at a time when US policymakers, voters and taxpayers are bent on cutting US commitments and spending in the Middle East, it may only be a matter of time before they are told to shut down the LAF.

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The debate now revolves around whether it is realistic to demand that the LAF take concerted action against Hezbollah’s PGM supply lines and arsenal. LAF critics say they must act. LAF supporters say this would only lead to civil war. But it is a false binary to suggest that one must choose between accepting LAF inaction and a civil war between the LAF and Hezbollah.

Consider the LAF’s performance during the last few months of protest in Lebanon. The LAF came under significant pressure from Hezbollah to attack peaceful, unarmed Lebanese demonstrators. However, in several cases, the LAF apparently protected protesters from Hezbollah-associated thugs.

Supporters of the Shi’ite movement Hezbollah watch as its leader Hasan Nasrallah delivers a speech on a screen in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut on January 5, 2020. (Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)

This willingness to disregard and even oppose Hezbollah suggests that it may be possible for the LAF to implement a new threshold strategy, or gray zone, focused on increasing the visibility and costs of Hezbollah’s PGM project. The LAF could play a role in raising awareness that Hezbollah is allowing Tehran to drag Lebanon into an avoidable conflict with Israel that will be far more damaging than the 2006 war.

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From the US perspective, such an approach would represent an improvement over the current LAF policy of doing nothing. It does not solve the problem of the LAF’s reluctance to disarm a non-state actor. Rather, it is a small initial step that could slow the march to a disastrous war between Hezbollah and Israel.

There is no guarantee that such a move will now save the LAF in Washington. COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, has inflicted a severe blow on the US economy, and the federal government is engaging in large-scale deficit spending in an effort to stave off a depression. There may not be an appetite to support the LAF after that. And if the PGM project continues apace, it may not matter because Israel can act before the next funding cycle.

For LAF, the pressure is on. The loss of American support would be a shame. The United States worked for many years to improve the LAF’s capabilities and solidify its reputation “as the only legitimate defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty.” These efforts have built an increasingly capable LAF, which is among Lebanon’s most respected institutions.

Ending US funding for the LAF would undermine US influence, undermine an anti-ISIS partner, reinforce messages of American unreliability, and create a vacuum that Moscow would almost certainly try to fill with Russian personnel, equipment, weapons, and training. Furthermore, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah would be stronger in Lebanon, the terror group’s PGM arsenal would continue to grow, and Israel would be less secure.

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But if the LAF fails to act, those making such arguments will eventually lose. More worryingly, the people of Lebanon will lose. The Iranian regime and Hezbollah will have the war they are looking for. And the LAF will have done nothing to stop it.

Bradley Bowman, former US Army officer and Senate staffer, serves as senior director of the

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