Lebanese Ground Forces

The Lebanese army is probably the only institution in Lebanon that is still diverse, and enjoys a considerable level of trust and respect among the Lebanese people and the international community. This in spite of Hezbollah’s deep infiltration of the institution and its brigades. With the security and social collapse facing Lebanon after 2020, many in the international community, and mainly from Europe and the US began coordinating directly with the army to distribute aid and humanitarian assistance.

The Lebanese Army is a national institution in a divided society. Many Lebanese say that the Army was the only institution capable of holding the country together through its turbulent and sometimes bloody history. The Lebanese army is widely seen as a unifying force in Lebanon, as it draws its ranks from all of the country's sects. But the military is also widely considered much weaker than the Shiite Hezbollah militant group, which is armed and funded by regional Shiite powerhouse Iran. Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah, is believed to be even more powerful than the nation’s 70,000-member army. The Army struggled to contain the escalating violence since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

The bulk of the Lebanese Armed Forces strength lies in their ground forces and it is by far the largest of the three branches of the military. After the establishment of the League of Nations mandate over Lebanon in April 1920, France formed the Troupes Spéciales du Levant (Levantine Special Forces), which were composed of Lebanese and Syrian enlisted personnel but commanded predominantly by French officers. The percentage of Lebanese and Syrian officers in the force increased gradually and by 1945 approximately 90 percent of the officers in the Troupes Spéciales du Levant were Arabs.

After the establishment of the League of Nations mandate over Lebanon in April 1920, France formed the Troupes Spéciales du Levant (Levantine Special Forces), which were composed of Lebanese and Syrian enlisted personnel but commanded predominantly by French officers. The percentage of Lebanese and Syrian officers in the force increased gradually, however, especially after the outbreak of World War II. By 1945 approximately 90 percent of the officers in the Troupes Spéciales du Levant were Arabs, and the force had attained its maximum strength of about 14,000.

During World War II, Lebanese troops fought effectively in Lebanon with the Vichy French forces against British and Free French forces. After the surrender of Vichy forces in the Middle East in July 1941, volunteers from the Troupes Spéciales du Levant were enlisted in the Free French forces and participated in combat in North Africa, Italy, and southern France.

In June 1943, the French reconstituted units of the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, which were then attached to the British forces in the Middle East. In 1945, as the result of continuing pressure by Lebanese leaders for control of their own forces, the French turned over to them the Lebanese units of the Troupes Spéciales du Levant. These units totaled about 3,000 men and became the nucleus of the Lebanese Army.

Following independence in 1945, the government of Lebanon intentionally kept its armed forces small and weak due to internal politicking and its unique nature identity politics. Christian politicians feared that Muslims might use the armed forces as a vehicle for seizing power in a military coup d'état. Furthermore the Christians appeared unwilling to incur the cost of maintaining a large standing army. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Lebanon never spent more than 4 percent of its gross national product on the military budget.

Furthermore, many Christian Lebanese feared that a large army would inevitably embroil Lebanon in the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, Muslim politicians were also worried that a strong army could be used prejudicially against Muslim interests because it would be commanded by Christians. Interestingly, at the same time they tended to feel that the military should be strong enough to play a part in the Arab-Israeli struggle. Finally, prominent politicians of all religious denominations have also tended to be feudal warlords commanding their own private militias and fearing that a strong army would erode their personal power.

The Army, like society as a whole, was a delicate balance of confessional representations. The Commander must be a Maronite Christian, the Chief of Staff a Druze, and so on. An apocryphal but revealing joke used to be told of a Lebanese company fighting Israel in 1948 and refusing to move on the grounds that, since four Maronites had been wounded, it was now essential that three Sunnis, two Shi'as, and so forth also be wounded. Many military units became personal fiefdoms for local commanders, and corruption was rampant.

In 1973 a state of emergency was declared to deal with fighting between the Lebanon’s Muslim, Christian and Druze communities. The army was able to stabilize Lebanon, giving the nation’s politicians the breathing space to at least delay an all-out civil war, which eventually broke out two years later and left 120,000 dead after 15 years of fighting. At the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, the Army disintegrated as soldiers deserted to join militias of their respective religious communities.

The Army became a joke, exercising no power except a certain ceremonial guard duty around the Presidential Palace and its own headquarters. But the need to give real authority to the Army was evident throughout the civil war. Only a national Army could possibly hope to restore some sort of order and replace the various militias, the Syrian troops who entered in 1976, or the Israelis who entered in 1982. Already in 1978 plans were drawn up to reorganize the Army, institute conscription, and eventually spread out to control the country. The vicissitudes of war and occupation made those 1978 plans little more than dreams until the traumatic war of 1982.

What the Army needed, it seemed clear, was a wholesale "new broom" approach, removing the deadwood from the command structure and installing a new breed of officer, committed to a Lebanese rather than a communal or regional identity. By 1982 the Army was down to about 8,000 men at one point in the civil 'war (while total Phalangist militia forces were as high as 22,000 and the militias had more tanks than the Army). By mid-1983 the Army was at 22,000 and growing rapidly, with an ultimate goal of about 60,000, not counting Internal Security forces and a planned Frontier Force. One major change has been the introduction of conscription, the so—called "Service to the Flag" law.

Although ill-equipped and underfunded, the Lebanese Army nevertheless proved its professionalism and cohesion in a large-scale purge of Islamist fighters hidden in Palestinian refugee camps in 2007, and was considered to be a professional, cohesive force by Lebanese and foreigners alike. Lebanese Army professionalism can thus be seen as rather strong. The LAF was responsive to its civilian leadership during the NAB conflict and that its actions conformed to international standards, the Geneva Conventions and the Law of Land Warfare.

Christians will not enlist to be regular infantrymen who are deployed in the south and on the borders as this places them too far away from their families who predominantly live near Beirut. More importantly, Lebanese law requires that the Army be 50% Christian and 50% Muslim. There is much room for the Christian population in the Army to grow. During a recent recruiting drive, there was a call for 5,000 troops; 50,000 men appeared for review. Of these 50,000, 45,000 were only interested in SF duty. There were over 8,600 Christians from Mount Lebanon, a Christian area, who showed up to enlist in Special Forces.

Recruitment efforts over the two years 2006-2008 netted 20,000 new troops for the Army at the same time that many draftees had been leaving the army. When this process began, the Shia accounted for 58% of the enlisted force; now they 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. The Shia no longer "pose a threat" to the LAF, even if Nasrallah were to call on them to leave the army [as happened in 1984].

The Sunni troops in the Army are very loyal. Most of the Sunni troops in the Army come from the economically depressed region of Akkar in northern Lebanon. Every one that joins the Army from the north usually has an extensive network of family members who are also in the Army. As for the Shia, they come to the Army for a salary and to eat. Christians come with a sense of community service; this is why the elites want to serve in Special Forces. You won't hear this from the Army, but it is their reality.

Commander of the LAF, General Jean Kahwagi, in his 30 July 2009 speech commemorating Army Day, was specific in praising the LAF, which he described as a "center of confidence of the Lebanese people." He lauded it for safeguarding the nearly incident-free parliamentary elections, fighting espionage and terrorist networks, progressing with humanitarian demining operations, assisting with local development projects, and working on a border security plan. Kahwagi made note of the LAF's "modest capacities" in terms of weapons.

President Michel Sleiman praised the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) while criticizing the delay in forming a cabinet during a ceremony on 01 August 2009 commemorating the 64th Army Day at the military academy in Fidayieh. Sleiman criticized footdragging in the formation of the government, urged politicians to serve the nation instead of themselves, and decried the influence of sectarianism.

By 2013 the Lebanese Army’s immediate challenge was to keep the peace between the country’s Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, who support opposite sides in the Syrian war. Shi’ites, who are thought to be the slightly larger group, generally support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his followers, who are largely Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ism. Lebanon’s Sunnis mainly support Syria’s anti-government rebels, who are also largely Sunnis.

The war in Syria pushed the army to increase coordination with Hezbollah, which supported the regime of Alawite President Bashar al-Assad against a largely Sunni rebellion. This coordination ran parallel of a crackdown on Lebanese extremists in Lebanon. Those who supported the Syrian revolution, particularly those in the Sunni political street, were critical of the coordination between the LAF and Hezbollah.

The Lebanese government defaulted in March 2020 on its $1.2 billion Eurobond payment, triggering talks with the IMF to restructure some $90 billion in debt. Since then, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 80 percent of its value and the salary of an average soldier has now reached around $120 a month. Soldiers previously earned around 1,292,000 Lebanese pounds ($855 at the official exchange rate) each month.

The Lebanese parliament granted the army with sweeping power in the wake of the 04 August 2020 Beirut explosion that killed some 200 people and injured over 6,000 others. Facing pressure from the street, the political class used the army as a first line of defense under the new state of emergency, giving it the power to declare curfews, refer civilians to military tribunals for alleged security breaches, prevent public gatherings and censor the media. As Lebanon faced renewed protests in August 2020, the Lebanese Armed Forces’ neutrality and legitimacy was put to the test, as its members were routinely put in the direct path of protesters. While the army’s unity’s did not seem to be at risk, the willingness of low ranking officers to repress crowds was diminishing. And the longer the political and economic crises last, the less willing common foot soldiers would be to carry out the will of the state. The army was in a difficult position. On one hand, it was conscious that corruption plagues the political class controlling the state’s institutions had sway over the army. On the other, it had to protect peaceful protests while preventing any riots.

The army is reflective of the country’s political divisions. Hezbollah and its Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement, which have backed the government of PM Hassan Diab at the time of the bombing had been largely the target of the public ire. The fact that Christian Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai was indirectly blaming Christian President Michel Aoun and its ally Hezbollah for the Lebanese disastrous situation had an impact on the army’s Christian leadership. To that, must be added sectarian tensions resulting from those who are siding with or against Hezbollah. While this may not affect the army’s unity, it was reflected in the process of effective decision making.

The army faced increasing problems at the level of how soldiers and commanders choose to execute orders. The less convinced of the orders soldiers are, the more likely they will try avoid executing these orders.

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