| 13 April 2024, Saturday |

Weapons or food? Lebanon’s military risks going hungry

Lebanon’s economic collapse appears to be escalating. The national pound currency has lost over 85% of its value in the past two weeks alone, crashing to a new record low on March 16 at 15,000 against the U.S. dollar, fueling nationwide demonstrations and placing further strain on Lebanon’s overstretched security forces, a report published by the Atlantic Council said.

Meanwhile, political leaders continue to bicker over forming a new cabinet that is supposed to launch a reform program that should unlock billions of dollars in pledged international aid to help the economy move forward with a long-awaited recovery process.

In a clear signal that a total meltdown is imminent, top officials — including Joseph Aoun, the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) — have sounded the alarm about the deteriorating situation in recent days. Raymond Ghajar, the caretaker energy minister, cautioned that Lebanon could witness “total darkness” by the end of March if funds are not allocated to buy fuel for power stations. Economy minister Ghazi Wazni has said that government subsidies on gasoline will be gradually lifted in April, which spurred long queues outside fuel stations, as motorists attempted to fill up their cars before the expected increase in prices.

On February 17, interior minister Mohammed Fahmy announced that the Internal Security Forces (ISF) are unable to carry out 90% of their duties. Army chief Joseph Aoun added his voice to the flurry of warnings, delivering unprecedented public criticism of Lebanese politicians for their failure to address the economic and political crisis.

“Everyone is suffering because of the political and economic situation,” Aoun told a gathering of senior officers. “People are getting hungry and the LAF is part of the people. Soldiers are getting hungry and suffering as well. To you political leaders: where are you and what are you doing?”

General Aoun’s rare remarks on politics underline the gravity of the economic crisis and its effect on the army. Prices of commodities and foodstuffs have skyrocketed, businesses have locked their doors, banks have slapped arbitrary capital controls on U.S. dollar-denominated accounts, and the United Nations estimates that more than 50% of Lebanon’s population of six million live below the poverty line. Lebanon’s security services have been affected along with everybody else. A LAF sergeant received the equivalent of $860/ month before the financial crisis hit in October 2019. Today, his salary is worth a mere $90.

The root of the economic crisis lies in 3 decades of massive waste of state funds, inept cabinet performances, and growing corruption by a group of sectarian oligarchs who have dominated the political landscape since the end of the civil war (1975-1990).

In August 2020, the cabinet of Prime Minister Hassan Diab stepped down  in the wake of a large explosion in Beirut port that killed more than two hundred people and decimated a swathe of the city. Saad Hariri, a former premier, was appointed to replace Diab, who continues to serve with his cabinet in a caretaker capacity. However, the cabinet formation process remains stalled seven months on, resulting from discrepancies between Hariri and President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, over the size and composition of the government.

The U.S. has provided financial aid to the LAF amounting to over $2 billion since 2007 and has helped turn the army into a more effective fighting force. The LAF is the one state institution generally respected by the Lebanese and is the only security organ that can maintain stability as the situation worsens. Yet, in the past year, concerns have been raised that the LAF could start disintegrating if the economy continues to shrink. There have been reports of soldiers going absent-without-leave, although the numbers cited have almost no impact on operational capabilities for the time being.

Thus far, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has not signaled any changes to ongoing U.S. military support to Lebanon. But the LAF remains under scrutiny given accusations that it is too close to the powerful Iran-backed militant group, Hezbollah. The relationship between the two is complex, and often not fully understood in Washington. While the Directorate of Military Intelligence is generally cooperative with Hezbollah — especially on counter-intelligence matters relating to Israel and extremist Sunni groups — other regular LAF units have little or no contact with the organization. Several LAF soldiers bristle at the notion of having to share national defense duties with a sectarian militia that is ultimately answerable to Iran’s Supreme Leader. The stark reality is that Hezbollah has grown too powerful for the army or any other Lebanese state security or political body to bring to heel. So long as the group can maintain the popular support of the majority of Lebanese Shias and the state backing of Iran, resolving its armed status will remain a regional and international problem, one beyond the capacity of the Lebanese alone.

Critics of U.S. support for the Lebanese army also cite allegations that it has used excessive force against demonstrators since protests against the country’s political leadership erupted in October 2019. While some soldiers have resorted to harsh behavior at times, many of them quietly sympathize with the protesters as they share the same economic ordeal. In addition, General Aoun has pushed back against President Aoun’s past demands to re-open — by force if necessary — roads blocked by protesters.

The army’s current priority is not the acquisition of new weapons systems or military equipment. The key is to ensure the economic well-being of the soldiers so that they do not feel forced to desert and find alternative means of earning a living, thereby undermining the institution’s integrity. A mechanism should be found that would allow U.S. financial assistance for the LAF to be temporarily switched away from supplying military hardware to providing social welfare and logistical aid, such as food, clothing, diesel fuel for heaters, and gasoline for vehicles. Alternatively, goods could be subsidized at the LAF’s equivalent to the US military’s post exchange stores. Moreover, to resolve the fiscal dilemma of LAF salaries, it might be worth examining if a structural mechanism could be established that would allow soldiers to withdraw lira from their accounts at the black market rate, instead of the central bank approved rate of LL3,900 to the U.S. dollar. The U.S. could help with this mechanism by delivering some of its annual financial assistance as an economic aid package for the army to either the Lebanese central bank or a vetted and trusted independent bank.

Nonetheless, bureaucratic and legal obstacles in both Washington and Beirut may well weigh against such moves, but saving the Lebanese army requires some urgent and creative thinking.

There is no magic wand that can be waved by the U.S. or anyone else in the international community that will reverse Lebanon’s decline, especially given the selfishness of its political barons who still seem content to fiddle even as the country is torn apart. But another failed state in the Middle East — one that sits on Israel’s northern border and is home to the world’s most powerful non-state military actor — is in the interest of no-one. Lebanon’s total meltdown will speed up a new wave of refugees — Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians— toward European shores. It will leave Hezbollah as the dominant security actor and open the country to greater Iranian, Syrian, and Russian influence.

The Biden administration is turning its attention away from the Middle East to address the growing global challenges posed by China and Russia. Yet, the U.S. can help Beirut by maintaining its overall support for the LAF while exploring the best means of delivering that assistance to allow the army to ameliorate its socio-economic challenges and contain the inevitable social explosion across the country as the situation deteriorates.