Who Will Disarm Hizballah? Not the Lebanese Army

  • Share
  • Read Later

Lebanese soldiers keep watch in Saida, south of Lebanon.

Despite the furious diplomatic debate over how and in what sequence it will be implemented, the peace plan for Lebanon requires the following: Israeli forces will withdraw; an international force will be deployed in southern Lebanon; Hizballah will be disarmed; and protection of the border will be handed over to the Lebanese Army.

In essence, though the Lebanese Army is envisaged as the foundation of the long-term solution, it has remained remarkably silent during the three-week war on what is, legally at least, its own territory. And the reasons for its passivity may hold important clues to the final shape of a peace agreement.

A few days after the Israelis began their air raids and artillery bombardment, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr talked tough: "The Lebanese army will resist and defend the country," he said in a televised address. "If there is an invasion of Lebanon, we are waiting for them." Twenty-four days into the conflict, the Lebanese army is still waiting, and has made no move against the Israeli invasion.

To have stood up to the advancing Israeli armored columns, of course, would have been suicidal: The poorly equipped Lebanese military, whose annual budget is $542 million, is vastly outgunned by the Israelis, who spend more than $9 billion a year on keeping one of the world's most advanced armies equipped with cutting-edge American technology. "There is no way we are going to get the army into this conflict because within an hour it would be decimated," said one government official. "The only official orders the army has are to 'react if attacked directly' and it has already been attacked directly. The army can do nothing."

The Lebanese Army is weak not just by neglect, but also by design, however. Like the Lebanese government, the military allocates power and position on the basis of maintaining the delicate sectarian consensus that ended decades of bloody civil war. Domestic political stability rather than military effectiveness has been the guiding principle of its development. "The Lebanese army is a mirror of all the country; its job is to maintain stability in the country," said Retired General Salim Abu Ismail, a former military attache to Washington and the managing editor of Al Defaiya Defense Magazine. "During the Civil War, every sect had a portion of the army. In the late '80s, we had at least two armies, one Christian, one Muslim."

The makeup and capability of the Lebanese Army render it unthinkable, say military observers and government officials, for it to forcibly disarm Hizballah or take control of southern Lebanon. More than one third of the army's personnel is Shi'ite, drawn from a community in which Hizballah is overwhelmingly popular. And as long as it is the only force fighting the Israelis inside Lebanon, Hizballah's support would be even wider, making it even less likely that the government could order the Army to move against it. "The Lebanese Army will never be given any orders to disarm any militia, especially under these circumstances when Hizballah is being attacked by Israel," said Gen. Ismail. "The Lebanese army is not going to fight other Lebanese. There would be civil war."

Instead, government officials say, the only way that the Lebanese Army would deploy to the south would be as part of a political framework agreed to by Hizballah. On present indications, that would require a cease-fire agreement that included a prisoner exchange and settling of border disputes. The Lebanese Army could then work with an international force to ensure that Hizballah abided by the cease-fire, and that no new militias move into southern Lebanon as the PLO did in the 1970s and 1980s. "You can't just throw a force down into southern Lebanon and have it create peace," said Dr. Mohammed Chatah, a senior advisor to the Lebanese prime minister. "There has to be peace first."

France and the U.S. are currently butting heads over the sequencing of a peace process — Lebanon's view, requiring a deal with Hizballah as a precondition for deployment, appears to be closer to that of France — and the outcome of that debate may be dictated by events on the battlefield.

But even once consensus is achieved, the long-term role of the Lebanese Army in protecting the border would require a massive modernization that would take at least three years and cost upward of $1 billion, according to Dr. Riad Kahwaji, the Lebanese founder of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a think tank in Dubai. Right now, its 1960s-era American and Soviet armor is so obsolete that spare parts are no longer available. Its only air force consists of 16 very old Huey helicopters that pilots call "flying coffins"; it has no navy except for four or five patrol boats; no border sensors; no night vision goggles; and minimal special forces. "The Lebanese army needs to focus on becoming more flexible," said Kahwaji. "Weapons smuggling, drug trafficking, al-Qaeda infiltration, this can only be dealt with by special operations."

On the positive side, however, the Lebanese army seems to be recovering its independence after the 15 years of Syrian domination. Although the Defense Minister, Elias Murr, is sometimes allied with Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, there has been an extensive purge of pro-Syrian officers in the past year, according to Kahwaji. That's been especially true in military intelligence, often the most political — and powerful — branch of Arab militaries.

Even with extensive modification, of course, the Lebanese army is unlikely to be a match for its more powerful neighbors, Israel and Syria. "We are a small country and we have to rely on international agreements to protect ourselves," said Gen. Ismail. But international treaties and allies have failed Lebanon in the past. And with the international community still refraining from imposing an immediate cease-fire, many Lebanese continue to look to Hizballah as their only defense against the Israeli invader.