Strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces

Lebanon’s most popular institution needs more support

The Lebanese Armed Forces are a rare trusted body in the country

As part of Executive’s ‘10 Ways to Save Lebanon’ issue, we talk to leading experts to discuss ways to improve security in the country.

 

Any hopes that the formation of a new government would end Lebanon’s security woes were dashed almost before they were raised. On Wednesday February 19, just four days after the new government was announced, Beirut again awoke to the sounds of explosions as two car bombs rocked the city’s southern suburbs. The attacks were the ninth in the country since Christmas, with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades claiming responsibility.

Clearly any policy manifesto for Lebanon has to start by assessing ways to improve security. Economic development and fundamental reforms are only possible in the context of stability, and tackling this is a prerequisite to any other proposals suggested in a manifesto.

The deteriorating security situation has both short-term and long-term causes. The civil war in neighboring Syria — and the involvement of Lebanese actors on both sides — is clearly foremost among them, but wider regional political polarization and a weak state are also significant factors.

What is required to reverse this negative trend, experts agree, is a range of short-term and long-term responses to protect Lebanon from the Syrian crisis and the wider winds of turmoil across the region.

Nadim Shehadi from Chatham House — a British think-tank — points out that this should start by increasing the authority of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Internal Security Forces (ISF). “It is important to implement measures to increase the credibility and impartiality of the security establishment,” he says, in a common refrain from the experts Executive spoke to.

Sami Nader, an economist and professor at Saint Joseph University (USJ), agrees that the first priority for the new government is to create unity around the importance of the LAF. The body is one of the few genuinely cross-sectarian bodies in the country, and enjoys widespread support. A 2013 poll found that it was the most trusted institution in Lebanon across all sectarian groups.

“They need to form the necessary consensus to back the army and provide the political support for the army to do its mission. Then you have to provide it with the technical support to do so,” he says, adding that the $3 billion grant pledged by Saudi Arabia for the LAF in December could make a large difference to the operating capacity of the army.

As this magazine covered last month, that deal is far from a panacea to Lebanon’s woes. There are doubts about how fast the money will be made available, as well as a lack of clarity as to which areas would benefit from it.

But while the earliest that Saudi financial support will be seen in real terms is likely the second half of 2014, Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that the LAF is already making some of the necessary changes to reclaim security. In particular, he points out that attempts are being made to better manage the country’s porous border with Syria — the source of many of the explosive-rigged vehicles which are being smuggled into the country.

In 2013, for the first time, the armed forces inaugurated four fixed observation posts along the northern part of the border with Syria, while by the end of 2014 it aims to have opened another eight. “In the north the military is gradually building up its ability to manage and control the region. This is at least in part thanks to the establishment of the 1st and 2nd Border Regiments, and the construction of a series of well-manned, fixed sangar-style hardened observation posts,” Nerguizian said. “Each is equipped with electro-optical systems, anti-RPG netting, and other defensive countermeasures. Prior to 2011 you had neither a real nor a working border security regime between Lebanon and Syria in that area, and you did not have Syrian willingness to expedite border demarcation.”

Chatham House’s Shehadi agrees that in relative terms the military has succeeded in controlling the spread of violence from Syria. “Given the position the country is in, security is more or less under control. It could be a lot worse than it is, given the current climate.”

There have recently been a few minor victories. In mid-February the LAF captured a car that contained a quarter ton of explosives, which had been rigged inside Syria before being smuggled across the border.

There have also been positive signs that the new government is willing to provide the army with the necessary support. Following the February 19 bombings, new interior minister Nouhad Machnouk — a March 14 stalwart who has been accused of being allied with the Syrian armed opposition — pledged to support the army in their efforts. “There are Lebanese passageways sending stolen vehicles to Syria where they are being rigged with explosives. We should crack down in areas like the Bekaa Valley, and others where thieves live and where stolen vehicles are taken,” he said. A clear government-wide focus on keeping the troubles on the other side of the border would be a refreshing change.

Shehadi, however, issues a note of caution, that in the search for security, Lebanon runs the risk of becoming an over-militarized state. More powers to the army and ISF, he says, “is a double edged sword; in the long term you do not want Lebanon to turn into a state controlled by the security apparatus. What we are seeing in Lebanon is dangerous, as we are seeing a more powerful security apparatus, but less political freedom.” For many Lebanese, this may be a temporary compromise they are willing to make.

A few steps ahead

Yet while strengthening the effectiveness of the security services could make a short-term difference, it would be treating the symptoms rather than the primary cause of the crisis, namely region-wide political polarization.

The situation is clearly larger than Lebanon, with the country once again becoming a key battlefield for regional powers. Conflicts that have their roots in Riyadh, Damascus, Tehran, Washington and Tel Aviv are being played out in Beirut.

Clearly a wider regional rapprochement is beyond the capacity of Lebanon’s politicians, but in the absence of such a deal, local reconciliation could help. Improved relations between the major Lebanese actors — so many of them satellites of regional powers — would at least provide a few defenses.

USJ’s Nader points out that Lebanese political parties are fighting on both sides of the Syrian conflict — with  the Shiite party Hezbollah backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad and other groups supporting the opposition. This, he says, blurs the distinction between Lebanon and its warring neighbor. “We need to have all sides withdrawing from Syria, that way we can protect the country,” he adds.

For the country’s economic future, a more conciliatory attitude between the politicians would be a huge step in the right direction. Nassib Ghobril, head of research at Byblos Bank, points out that the country’s economic fortunes are intrinsically linked with politics. As such, the very formation of a government is a positive move for the economy, but a new national pact would have a greater effect. He points to the 2008 Doha Accords, which saw rival actors agree to share power after years of animosity, as a key moment for the economy. “The months after the Doha Accords were the best for confidence in the history of our index,” he says, referring to the Byblos Bank/AUB consumer confidence index. A new national pact would, therefore, be a partial antidote to the country’s security woes.

None of these options are easy, and none will be achieved without significant efforts. But for the economic future of Lebanon, security must be the key tenet of any manifesto.

Joe Dyke

Joe has extensive experience covering the Syrian crisis, oil and gas, and Lebanese government and regulatory authorities, among other topics. He was Executive's online editor from 2012 to 2014, and led the Economics & Policy section from 2013 to 2014.

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