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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Limit US support for the Lebanese Armed Forces

At the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog, David Schenker debunks a New York Times op-ed written by Nicholas Noe in mid-June. Noe argued that the United States was refraining from helping the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) out of concern for Israel, and was therefore strengthening Hezbullah.
Unfortunately, even though the Bush administration has provided more than $300 million in tactical aid to Lebanon since the Syrian withdrawal of 2005, it still apparently refuses to provide the kind of strategic weapons — guided rockets, tanks, modern artillery and intelligence-gathering equipment — that are desperately needed in this task. During her visit to Beirut this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn’t even mention the issue.

The reason for this, American and Lebanese officials say privately, is a longstanding prohibition against supplying Lebanese forces with advanced equipment that could be used against Israel.

This “red line” remains even though Hezbollah has far more dangerous weaponry, and despite Washington’s commitment to build up the authority of the state. It is a testament to how short-sighted and contradictory the American approach to Lebanon has been.


In the end, the presence of the armed forces afforded Hezbollah and its rivals a way to quickly withdraw, clearing the way for negotiations that led to the installation of a president and should shortly lead to a new national unity government.

Hezbollah’s reduced popularity and its reliance on the army set an ideal foundation for the most important task facing the new government: creating a credible defense plan. Give the Lebanese an army able to meet the perceived threats emanating from Israel (primarily involving water, territory and a possible future expulsion of Palestinians to Lebanon), and then, Hezbollah has said, its independent weaponry can be tackled.

Encouraging this dynamic should be at the top of the American agenda in Lebanon, especially since the two primary disputes between Hezbollah and Israel (the status of Shebaa Farms and a prisoner exchange) appear on the verge of a resolution — thus further undercutting Hezbollah’s rationale for bearing arms.

This necessarily means accepting a strong force arrayed defensively against Israel. But ultimately the United States would do far better for Lebanon and its own interests by allowing the country’s military to get what it needs, rather than leaving the field open to Hezbollah.
Schenker argues that Noe's article is false and that the US has not restricted weapons transfers to the LAF.
Prima facie, Noe’s article neglects to even mention the deep divisions in the LAF that are the primary constraint on the long-term prospects for making the military an effective national institution. Yet despite these limitations, Washington has fully backed the LAF. Indeed, contrary to Noe’s assertion, the United States expedited the shipment of over 40 C-130 transport planes brimming with military materiel to Beirut immediately after the outbreak of fighting in Nahr el Bared. This was no mean feat. It required a lot of creative thinking—the United States used an ACSA mechanism to dispatch the weapons and ammo quickly—and a real effort to cut through standard timelines and procedures.

The materiel provided by the United States was what was required for the operation and what could be absorbed by the LAF. Shipments at the time included over 10 million rounds of all types of ammunition, as well as—according to the State Department—”the same front-line weapons that the U.S. military troops are currently using, including assault rifles, automatic grenade launchers, advanced sniper weapons systems, anti-tank weapons, and the most modern urban warfare bunker weapons.” This and subsequent assistance has not been subject to Israeli veto, but rather is based on a careful assessment of LAF operational requirements carried out by the United States and France.


His assessment that, once the LAF is “able to meet the perceived threats emanating from Israel,” Hezbollah’s weapons “can be tackled,” also strains credulity. Hezbollah has an ever-expanding list of prerequisites for disarmament, ranging from the liberation of Jerusalem to the end of Lebanese government corruption. Noe’s supposition that Hezbollah’s weapons will be on the table when the LAF is better armed is more wishful thinking than reality.

No doubt, Israel has some concerns about the LAF. Based on the LAF’s apparent collusion with Hezbollah in the firing of the Chinese-made Iranian-provided C-802 land-to-sea missile—which hit and almost sank an Israeli SAAR 5-class warship during the summer 2006 war—these concerns are well founded. But the fear that the LAF would somehow transfer U.S.-made weapons to the Shiite militia is likely not at the top of the Israelis’ list. First, the LAF has a very good record in this regard; and second, Hezbollah has received an arsenal from Moscow, Syria, and Iran that is so highly advanced, that it need not covet LAF stocks.

In the coming weeks, Washington may choose to modify its aid package to the LAF. If this occurs, it will be because of Hezbollah’s recent political and military gains, not Israeli complaints. By blaming Israel for a weak LAF, Noe is essentially repeating Hezbollah’s justification for retaining its army and arsenal.

It is in Washington’s long-term interest to see the LAF develop into a strong national institution. But it’s important to understand that the strength of this institution does not primarily rely on its capabilities, but rather on its will to take on difficult missions on orders from the democratically-elected government of Lebanon. No amount of U.S. military assistance will change this current dynamic.
Schenker apparently ignores the deep connections between the LAF and Hezbullah. The LAF will never be a national force until it is willing to challenge Hezbullah. Not only is that not happening (and I don't expect it to happen), but with a two-thirds Shiite composition, the LAF is assisting Hezbullah in its arms buildup by allowing Hezbullah to set up positions inside Shiite villages in southern Lebanon, where UNIFIL cannot go without LAF escort, and then warning the terrorists when UNIFIL is coming to inspect. But then that continues a tradition of LAF collusion with Hezbullah that went on throughout the war two summers ago and even before it.
TWELVE trucks crossed the Syrian border into Lebanon and rumbled south. When they were stopped at a checkpoint a few days later, the Lebanese Armed Forces found the trucks were brimming with ammunition and weapons, including Katyusha rockets that have been raining down on Israel since July 12.

What happened next, in this little-reported incident in late January, goes to the heart of the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. The convoy was waved on and travelled unhindered to its final destination: Hezbollah terrorists in southern Lebanon.

The Lebanese army said the transportation and storage of ammunition belonged to the "resistance". Once inside Lebanon it was subject to a ministerial policy statement of the Lebanese Government, which considers the "resistance" to be legitimate.

"As the Government of Lebanon has confirmed, the Lebanese Armed Forces has thus not been authorised to prevent further movement of the ammunitions, which had been a common practice for more than 15 years," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a letter to the Security Council in April. "Hezbollah publicly confirmed that the arms were destined for the group."

It's this uninterrupted flow of weapons, mostly made in Iran, under the nose of the Lebanese Government, that has allowed Hezbollah to stockpile some 12,000 Katyusha rockets. Over the past 29 days of conflict, Hezbollah has fired more than 3000 rockets into Israel.
Lebanon's President has threatened to take the disputed Shaba Farms by force unless Israel gives it to him. Is that an American interest? Does that enhance the LAF's position as a national army? Or does it pander to Hezbullah's demands?

Schenker is right that Hezbullah has no intention of ever disarming. He is also right that even if Shaba Farms were to be given to Lebanon tomorrow morning, Hezbullah would find more excuses to maintain its private militia. Given that and Hezbullah's veto (and Syria's de facto veto) over Lebanese government activity, can the LAF truly be called a national army? Will it ever be a national army? If anything, it is just a second Hezbullah force.

Given all of the above, I suspect that if Schenker were to ask a senior IDF officer whether Israel fears that the LAF would transfer US weapons to Hezbullah's militia, the answer would be no. But that's not because we don't expect it to happen. It's because there is no need to transfer any weapons. De facto, the LAF and Hezbullah are already one and the same.

If it's not doing so already, the US should restrict weapons transfers to the LAF. The idea that the LAF is independent of Hezbullah is a dangerous delusion.


At 12:05 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

There is no Lebanese army. During the crisis earlier this year, the Lebanese army didn't back the government - it sided with Hezbollah by refusing to collect weapons and disarm it. For all practical extents and purposes, its an extension of Hezbollah's militia. And no other religious sect in Lebanon is in a position to challenge Hezbollah's dominance over the Lebanese state. With most of the population Shi'ite Muslim in composition, that's a fait accompli. And Israel has no desire to be caught up in Lebanon's tribal quarrels.


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