The commander of Lebanon’s Armed Forces (LAF), General Joseph Aoun, was in Washington on an official visit this week. The visit came shortly after Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described the LAF as “inextricably linked to Hezbollah,” and as having “become an integral part of Hezbollah’s campaign under its command.” Lieberman’s description of the power equation in Lebanon is not only accurate, but also is directly at odds with American policy, which is centered on supporting the Lebanese army.
Lieberman’s comments coincided with the Trump administration’s unveiling of its new Iran policy, which included new measures against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah. Recapping the measures rolled out against Hezbollah, the White House posted a notice which offered a window into the administration’s approach: “The Trump Administration is committed to supporting legitimate state institutions in Lebanon and will continue to expose Hezbollah’s nefarious behavior.” Exposing Hezbollah, the notice added, aims at “denying [it] political legitimacy,” so that “over time,” it will “lose the support of the Lebanese people.”
In other words, as the administration sees it, supporting the LAF is part of a strategic messaging or narrative campaign of sorts, which presumably will contrast Hezbollah’s illegitimate armed status with the legitimate forces of the state—even as Hezbollah and its allies dominate the state. Somehow, and over an undetermined period of time, after it’s been thoroughly exposed and with its political legitimacy—whatever that means—in tatters, this presumably will lead to Hezbollah disarming.
Now let’s be serious: This is not policy. This is poetry. And this has been perhaps the central problem of the LAF/Lebanon policy. Rather remarkably, since it was devised a decade ago, the policy has never had a clear, concrete, or consistent objective. On the one hand, there was the idea of having the LAF provide domestic security, which, after the fiasco of the 2007 battle with a bunch of jihadists in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, took on an added layer of counterterrorism. The Obama administration would emphasize this aspect beginning with the rise of ISIS in 2014, as it integrated the LAF policy into its overall policy of realignment with Iran. But then there were less tangible notions related to the Hezbollah problem. This is where we encounter abstract concepts packaged as policy objectives. If you build up the Lebanese state, it can act as a “counterweight” to Hezbollah, or “reduce” its power. A strong LAF will “eclipse” Hezbollah. Better still, building up the LAF would “strip Hezbollah of its argument” to maintain its armed status, as though this were a high school debate competition. Poetry, in other words.
Not only were the objectives confused and lacking clarity, they were also without a timeframe and did not impose any benchmarks to assess the viability of the set objectives, however ill-defined those were, and the progress achieved in attaining them, within the conceived period of time. How long would it take for the LAF to counter Hezbollah? If it cannot disarm the group after ten years, what concrete action can it take against the group, and what is expected of it, by, say, year 12? And how much closer do these specific benchmarks get us to the goal of disarming the group? Instead, more than a decade since the start of the policy, we continue to see language like “over time,” “long-term,” and “ultimately.”
In the meantime, the LAF’s relationship with Hezbollah has only grown closer, and Hezbollah’s control of the state and its institutions has tightened. Whenever US officials try to make a case for the success of the policy, they invariably cite the LAF’s dealings with Sunni groups exclusively. The long record of LAF-Hezbollah synergy is always suppressed. And finally, no benchmarks whatsoever are laid out in terms of measures the LAF is expected to take against Hezbollah. Despite this fact, the official US line, as the Pentagon spokesman put it, tellingly recycling verbatim a statement from an Obama administration official, holds that strengthening the LAF advances the US interest of “stemming the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the region.”
Well, a policy focused on “narrative” will not stem anything. So, if Washington is intent on doubling down on the LAF, then at the very least it should inform the LAF commander and the Lebanese government of what it expects from the LAF, and the timeframe in which it expects to begin to see it implemented, for that aid to continue. To assist the administration in this task, here’s a short list it can present to the Lebanese to start with.
As of August 2017, the LAF has been deployed along the eastern Lebanese border. With US and British assistance, LAF positions are reinforced with border control structures and monitoring equipment. This assistance was provided to assist the LAF in intercepting Sunni fighters engaged in the Syrian war, so as to prevent them from potentially destabilizing Lebanon.
However, US assistance to the LAF is also predicated on the implementation of UNSCR 1559 and 1701, which call for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon and the affirmation of state sovereignty and independence (namely, vis-à-vis the Assad regime). Especially now that the pockets held by jihadists on the Lebanese border have been cleared, the deployment of the LAF on the eastern border, then, should reflect this neglected mandate.
At this stage, therefore, the LAF needs to meet clear benchmarks. It can start with the following:
• The LAF needs to begin intercepting Hezbollah weapons shipments. UNSCR 1701 calls upon the Government of Lebanon “to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms or related materiel.” Now that the LAF is deployed on the northern and eastern Lebanese borders — the land routes through which Iran transfers weapons to Hezbollah—it needs to demonstrate willingness and capability to intercept these arms shipments in compliance with UNSCR 1701. Doubtless, such an effort cannot be a one-off show for the cameras. It must be credible, verifiable, and sustained. There’s a caveat here: The Lebanese government and the LAF are sure to use the deployment on the eastern border, and the US investment in it, to get Washington to pressure Israel to refrain from striking Hezbollah convoys in this sensitive area. The US should be aware of this trap and should reject any such potential appeals from the Lebanese government.
• The LAF should implement the nominal (although, naturally, fraudulent) official policy of “self-dissociation” from the Syrian war. As such, it should cut off Hezbollah’s communication lines with Syria. So far, the LAF’s deployment has served only to protect Hezbollah’s rear and logistical routes, directly enabling its intervention in Syria. This was most glaringly evident in November 2016, when Hezbollah paraded heavy military equipment across the border in the Syrian town of al-Qusayr. Hezbollah could not have moved this equipment without the knowledge and facilitation of the LAF. Viewed through a wider, regional lens, this LAF assistance to Hezbollah has directly helped Iran secure its overland route to the Mediterranean. The Trump administration’s policy of “stemming the influence of Iran in the region” requires denying Iran its land bridge across the Levant. As such, the LAF should be asked to block Hezbollah’s movement across the border to and from Syria.
• The LAF should dismantle tunnels and other infrastructure used for smuggling materiel along the border. Now that Hezbollah has expanded its presence and infrastructure on the Syrian side of the border, it is generally assumed that the group is using fortified tunnels between Lebanon and Syria to better secure the transfer of materiel. The LAF, now deployed in this area and supplied with border security equipment, should find and destroy these tunnels. This should include whatever infrastructure still operated by groups operating under Hezbollah’s protective cover. This, too, needs to be credible and verifiable. In addition, reports abound about Hezbollah camps in eastern Lebanon where fighters from across the region—like Iraq and Yemen—receive training. Given how these fighters, who are part of the IRGC’s regional network of militias, contribute directly to regional destabilization (and many are designated terrorist groups), and given how this makes Lebanon an the launching pad for Iran’s subversion, the LAF, as part of its deployment in the area, should permanently shut down these camps.
• This week, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3342 Sanctioning Hizballah’s Illicit Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act. Since the current policy is predicated on promoting the “narrative” of the LAF as “the sole defender of Lebanon,” then it should be asked to remove and dismantle Hezbollah rockets and military infrastructure stored and/or built under, inside, or near civilian areas.
The LAF’s synergetic relationship with Hezbollah isn’t haphazard. It’s a reflection of the power configuration and the Hezbollah-dominated political order in Beirut. It’s also codified in the LAF’s doctrine. Namely, the LAF’s doctrine adopts Hezbollah’s formulation and vocabulary about the group’s role and position in the state: “This Resistance, which has been supported by the government, the army and the civilians, has led to the defeat of the enemy on Lebanon’s land.” The combination of “Resistance” (that is, Hezbollah), “Army,” and “civilians” is an adaptation of Hezbollah’s so-called “Army-People-Resistance” doctrine, the embodiment of the Iranian revolutionary template, which in turn is adopted by the Lebanese government in its official policy statement.
This doctrine licenses the LAF’s joint deployment and extensive coordination with Hezbollah. It fosters not just toleration but also legitimization of so-called “resistance” militias and paramilitary groups operating under Hezbollah’s wing. And overall, it instills the pro-Hezbollah culture in the LAF officer corps.
Consequently, the LAF should be asked to meet an additional set of benchmarks:
• First, the LAF needs to renounce this doctrine, and to do so not just by scrubbing the text, but in declarative statements by the LAF command. This should be reflected in all officer and cadet training (instead, say, of officer cadets being taken on tours of Hezbollah’s “resistance museum,” escorted by a senior Military Intelligence officer). The LAF doctrine should not espouse synergy with Hezbollah. And, needless to say, the LAF should immediately end all coordination and intelligence sharing on the ground. At a recent briefing, Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan Sales stated that “the Government of Lebanon, likewise, needs to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. And we look to them to be a reliable partner on that front.” Until they do that, we should demand that the LAF command and its doctrine identify Hezbollah as an illegal militia, which, according to the Taef Accord and UNSCR 1701, should be disarmed.
• The LAF should then disarm and disband Hezbollah-fostered militias. These militias are allowed to exist because they operate in Hezbollah’s orbit. Some of them have been fighting alongside Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria, which means that they are allowed to cross the border where the LAF is deployed. These militias include (but are not limited to): the “Resistance Brigades” (Saraya al-Muqawama), the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s “Eagles of the Whirlwind” (Nusur al-Zawba’a), Druze thug Wi’am Wahhab’s “Brigades of Unification,” (Saraya al-Tawhid), The Lebanese Ba’ath Party militia, the Alawite militia of Rifaat Eid’s Arab Democratic Party, and, lastly, the predominantly Christian paramilitary group, “Protectors of the Homeland” (Humat al-Diyar). This latter group, it should be noted, interacts regularly with the LAF and is said to count retired LAF officers among its members. All these militias operate within Hezbollah’s “Army-People-Resistance” doctrine and serve to reinforce it. They occupy an analogous place to the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units in the Iranian revolutionary model. The US goal is to defeat this Iranian model. If it is to receive US aid, the LAF should start by officially rejecting the doctrine, and then acting on this rejection. The same should be asked of the Lebanese government.
Lastly, the Trump administration recently announced that the US is offering up to $12 million in rewards for information that brings to justice two top Hezbollah commanders, Fuad Shukr and Talal Hamiyeh. Given the relationship developed with the LAF over the past ten years, which has included sharing intelligence with them, we should ask them to tap into their domestic information network to help us get Hamiyeh and Shukr. We’d gladly add that $12 million to the assistance budget.
After more than a decade, Washington needs to thoroughly reconceptualize its LAF policy, especially now, as the administration has made clear its intent to go after Iran’s tentacles in the region. Instead of concrete and precise objectives, specific benchmarks, and definite timeframes, US policy has adopted the absurd language and corrupt sophistry of the Lebanese about the need to “strip Hezbollah of its arguments.” All that must be thrown away. Otherwise, if our policy in Lebanon, which the administration has identified as an arena to roll back Iran in, is going to be built around spurious notions like “narrative,” it would be akin to the old adage about bringing a knife to a gun fight. Only all we’d be bringing is poetry.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.