In light of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and the spate of political bombings in Lebanon, contradictory objectives for US policy in Lebanon are reducing the stability of an already volatile region. Swinging from support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), to concern for Israeli security, to fear of Hezbollah, to worries over the Syrian refugee crisis, US foreign policy has rarely been more schizophrenic. “A comprehensive review of the Lebanese military aid program, along with acknowledgement of the fundamental inability of the LAF to uproot Hezbollah due to sectarian divisions, is necessary to restore consistency to the US-Lebanon relationship,” confirmed former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer in an interview for this article.
The US has in the past been the most influential consistent donor to Lebanon though a number of other nations provide it military aid such as Saudi Arabia, which recently announced an unprecedented $3 billion aid package. Aid to Lebanon is carefully balanced; too little and Hezbollah can reign freely in the southern border area adjacent to Israel, too much and Israel becomes concerned that the LAF itself will pose a threat. If Saudi aid is indeed provided to the LAF, it may tip the balance the US has been trying to maintain.
American military aid to Lebanon skyrocketed in 2006, and in 2012 Lebanon received the largest annual US military and police training funds. US aid comprises eight separate assistance programs run by the Department of Defense or the State Department. The Foreign Military Financing Program accounts for the majority at 69% of the total. Of the eight programs only the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) police-training program at 14% of the total has been comprehensively evaluated.
This lack of oversight comes at a time of increasing concern about the link between Hezbollah’s military and political arms and as a result Lebanon has been in a political vacuum since Hezbollah forced Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government out of office in March 2013. A presidential election is scheduled for May 2014. Official documents identify a variety of US goals in Lebanon, some of which are contradictory or impossible given the capabilities of the Lebanese military. “US policy towards Lebanon stems from two fundamental interests: support for Lebanon as a fellow democratic state in an autocratic region, and the continuing safety of Israel, in particular with regards to the threat of Hezbollah,” summarizes former Ambassador Kurtzer. The composition of the aid eschews advanced weapon systems and focuses on logistics and basic weaponry.
Hezbollah, an armed Shi’a militia group in Lebanon, features military and political arms that have both been designated terrorist organizations by Israel and the US. It maintains strong sectarian ties with Iran and Syria. Hezbollah’s militia flies in the face of the 1989 Taif Accords that formally disbanded all militias in Lebanon and called for their weapons to be delivered to the State of Lebanon. “Hezbollah is effectively an independent state with its own military and foreign policy” explains Paul Salem, the Vice President for Policy and Research at the Middle East Institute, a non-partisan Washington DC-based think-tank.
On August 3, 2010, Israeli and Lebanese forces exchanged shots over a border violation, raising concerns that the US was supporting a military hostile to Israel. US aid to Lebanon was halted for three months, until a determination was made that supporting the Lebanese military would not result in an increased threat to Israeli regional security. Today these questions still reverberate among US foreign policy officials who are unable to determine how much military aid would prove satisfactory to the Lebanese Armed Forces, Israel, or the UN, although the end goal for US policy remains the same: “The United States believes that a peaceful, prosperous, and stable Lebanon can make an important contribution to comprehensive peace in the Middle East” per the State Department fact sheet on this issue.
The careful balancing act in US aid dates back to the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, which prompted a revamped US policy focused on ensuring Lebanese territorial control and the disarmament of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. In response President George Bush authorized aid to Lebanon for the first time since 1984 to provide a range of military support for the Lebanese Armed Forces. Concerns for Israeli regional security are reflected in the dramatic increase of the US 2006 aid budget from the $1 million requested following the Syrian withdraw to the $42 million requested during the summer 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Then in 2007 the aid was increased again to over $220 million, requested through the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act.
To promote the legitimate Lebanese government’s monopoly on force, the US Department of the Treasury revoked all rights to export military equipment to Lebanon except those authorized by the Government of Lebanon or the UN. In tandem, a UN Resolution implemented to end the 2006 war prohibited “sales or supply of arms and related material to Lebanon except as authorized by its Government,” so as to prevent weapon delivery to non-governmental militias such as Hezbollah.
In 2010, a Lebanese-Israeli skirmish at the Blue Line resulted in the deaths of two Lebanese soldiers, a journalist, and an Israeli officer. The UN peacekeeping force subsequently reported that the Israeli forces had not crossed the border, and both Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA, currently a lobbyist with Covington and Burling LLP) placed a hold on Lebanese military aid to verify that the attack on Israeli soldiers was not the result of collusion between Hezbollah and the Lebanese military. Neither returned calls to provide a statement explaining the current status of Hezbollah’s relationship with the Lebanese military, or how their concerns in 2010 were allayed.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 prohibited military aid to organizations controlled by a designated terrorist group except by presidential waver, and after the rise of the Hezbollah-allied Mikati government in Lebanon in 2011 the Departments of State and Defense conducted a review of assistance to the LAF to determine whether there was a conflict of interest. The aid was ultimately provided, however the 2013 Appropriations Act maintain a clause restricting military aid in the event of Hezbollah gaining direct control of the army. Control of the Lebanese Army currently rests with General Jean Kahwaji, who is not a Hezbollah member.
In a September 23, 2013 meeting with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, President Barack Obama affirmed that Lebanon “has the full support of the United States in [its] efforts to uphold Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence” and that “the United States strongly rejects Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the Syrian conflict, which…threatens to destabilize the region.” President Sleiman rejoined that he hoped “that the necessary impetus [and aid] would be given to support the Lebanese Armed Forces to the five-year capabilities building plan in order to enable it to undertake all its mission regarding the defense exclusively of the Lebanese territories and countering the terrorist operations which have reached out to all the world.”
The US has assessed the effectiveness of only a fraction of its aid to Lebanon, according to recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report that evaluates the funding of several aid programs from 2007 to 2012. Following the GAO report federal agencies seem to have acknowledged the need for evaluation, albeit on a delayed timescale: the State Department is “planning to start the [Lebanon Foreign Military Financing] FMF program evaluation in 2014,” according to a spokesperson.
Rather than evaluating the overall aid program, the Department of Defense conducts classified Joint Capabilities Reviews with the LAF. Second party sources with access to the documents find that the capabilities review has a positive outlook for the Lebanese military and overlooks Hezbollah: “Our partnerships with the Lebanese armed forces through Central Command’s joint capabilities review resulted in increased capacity to secure and defend their borders,” affirmed Lieutenant General Terry Wolff in a February 2013 congressional hearing before the Committee on Armed Services.
In contrast, a November 2013 Report of the UN Secretary General is more cautious and places greater emphasis on Hezbollah, “Maintenance of arms by Hezbollah and other groups outside the control of the State continues to pose a threat to Lebanese sovereignty and stability and contradicts the country’s [international] obligations.” Hezbollah publicly acknowledges that it maintains a substantial military capacity separate from that of the Lebanese State, which they say is to deter Israeli aggression. Iranian and Syrian support for Hezbollah includes advanced weaponry and missiles that the LAF acknowledges are continuously smuggled across the border. Most recently, on August 21, 2013, the LAF reportedly stopped a truck carrying 107-mm rockets from Syria into Lebanon. 107-mm rockets are manufactured in a number of countries but not in Syria; markings suggest that the rockets were manufactured in Iran.
In a November 22, 2013 speech President Suleiman reiterated that by maintaining a militia, Hezbollah’s military arm is overruling Lebanon’s democracy: “We cannot talk about independence if the state fails to spread its sole authority over all national territory, crack down on … terrorism, and unless the [legitimate government’s] armed forces are the sole holders of weapons.”
The contradictory treatment of Hezbollah’s threat by the US is evident even in the Fiscal Year 2013 Foreign Operations Budget Request, which states that counter-terrorism training and support for Lebanon continue to be a priority; however all counter-terrorism funding was removed from the aid budget requests (for a total of $17 million).
Looking ahead, in a June 2013 press conference Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said that he had recommended foreign military sales to the LAF be accelerated as a result of the Syrian civil war.
The US monitors foreign military aid to ensure that advanced weapons systems are sent to their intended recipients. This is particularly relevant for aid to countries such as Egypt and Pakistan where end-use monitoring often finds mismanagement of US aid by recipient organizations, however in the case of Lebanon “monitoring of US Government equipment continues to be stellar” according to the Fiscal Year 2013 Foreign Operations Budget Request.
Once the equipment has been received by the military, it is used at Lebanese discretion. A former Pentagon official responsible for Lebanon, currently a researcher at a US think-tank, confided that there has been collusion between the LAF and Hezbollah in the past, most notably with a C-802 land-sea missile fired at the Israeli warship INS Hanit in 2006 by Hezbollah and targeted using LAF radar systems. The C-802 is an anti-ship missile manufactured by China and used by the Iranian navy; although the INS Hanit suffered extensive damage and the deaths of four crewmembers, it did not sink during the attack.
Fears that Hezbollah has more sophisticated weapons than the Lebanese army are supported by Israeli Defense Forces’ reports that Hezbollah has an arsenal of thousands of rockets with a range that enables the missiles to be fired from well within Lebanese borders. Recently the New York Times reported that Hezbollah is transporting additional long-range missiles, including Scud D missiles, from storage locations in Syria to Lebanon.
The former Pentagon official interviewed for this article said that the LAF is plagued with organizational challenges for which the solution is not simply more advanced weaponry but rather a blend of training, basic logistical supplies, and lethal weaponry to develop their abilities from the bottom up. Finding balance is a challenge and US aid has focused largely on logistics and training. He estimates that “in 2006 there was only around 1 clip per person per year of ammunition,” and although substantial low level weaponry and ammunition has been provided through US aid, basic gear is still lacking to the extent that some Lebanese soldiers still rely on cell-phones to communicate in the battlefield. He concluded that Hezbollah is so far ahead of the LAF both in terms of armaments and sectarian cohesion that it will not be supplanted in the foreseeable future, regardless of the level of US aid.
The official continued that LAF is top-heavy, with slightly less than 1 general for every 100 soldiers, compared to the US army, which as of October 2013 had 1 general for each 1357 enlisted men as per the Active Duty Master Personnel File. According to a June 2013 Third Way (centrist DC-based think-tank) Report, having too few enlisted men for each general is “a situation that wastes money and creates a drag on military effectiveness.”
“There is always room for improvement in any group and we work with the LAF to better its organization,” acknowledged Robin Holzhauer, Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Beirut, in an exchange regarding this article.
The US has provided a variety of large-scale equipment to the LAF, including Huey helicopters, armored vehicles, militarized Cessna Caravan planes for reconnaissance, and a coastal security boat, along with the most extensive annual military training funding of any Middle East or North African State (as of the Department of State 2012 Foreign Military Training Report). However much of the weaponry provided the LAF is antique by US standards. Vietnam-era Huey helicopters were provided to Lebanon as part of an effort to modernize the LAF’s defense capabilities. Although Lebanese officials frequently request modern equipment such Cobra helicopters, US policy makers have maintained that the LAF has neither the capability nor the need to manage such technology.
Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) expressed concern about the age of Lebanese equipment; “I go to Lebanon and I see M–113s that were from before I started in the army in the 1970s” during a 2009 congressional hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs. In April 2009, one Cessna Caravan was provided to the LAF to bolster close air support and surveillance capabilities. An additional Cessna was delivered in 2013 (both are intended for reconnaissance).
Current levels of aid are insufficient to meet the US military aid goal of enabling Lebanon to enforce the Taif Accords by disbanding Hezbollah’s militia. “Hezbollah has received an arsenal from Moscow, Syria, and Iran that is so highly advanced, that it need not covet LAF stocks” writes David Schenker, a researcher at the nonpartisan, Washington DC-based think-tank Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This analysis is controversial as many critics of US aid worry that were advanced lethal weaponry provided to the LAF, it might fall into the hands of Hezbollah and thus pose a threat to Israel.
Regarding Lebanese sovereignty and borders the LAF could not succeed in a conventional border war with either Syria or Israel, whose military organizations are far ahead of the LAF in cohesion and funding.
US policy-makers repeatedly confirm that Israel will continue to be provided the most advanced American weaponry to maintain a ‘Qualitative Military Edge’ in the Middle East. At the same time, pro-Israel groups in the US are reluctant to discuss military aid to Lebanon in public.
Although two think-tank officials independently identified The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel advocacy group, as being heavily involved in lobbying against providing more advanced weaponry to Lebanon, an AIPAC spokesperson said that ‘AIPAC does not take a position on this issue.’ The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, another non-profit think-tank that researches US-Israel national security issues, also refused to take a position publicly on US lethal weapons aid to Lebanon.
Illegal “over flights of Lebanese airspace by the Israel Defense Forces continued almost daily by unmanned aerial vehicles and fixed-wing aircraft, including fighter jets, in violation of resolution 1701 and Lebanese sovereignty,” notes a November 2013 UN Secretary General Report. Hezbollah maintains its militia partly in response to the LAF’s inability to prevent incursions by Israel. Both the UN and the LAF have repeatedly called for Israel to end these border violations, however Israeli officials point to the threat of a Hezbollah attack as justification for continued surveillance of the Lebanese border.
“There is nothing that we are providing to the LAF and the [Lebanese Internal Security Force] that has, or will, endanger Israel’s defense capabilities,” said Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY) in a 2009 congressional hearing. This policy has been maintained; “The [US House] Committee intends that assistance provided to the LAF will not be used against Israel, and such assistance will not affect Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region,” as per the 2013 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill. In the words of Aram Nerguizian at the Center for International Security Studies, “The LAF poses no military threat to Israel.” Hezbollah, by contrast, does pose a direct threat to Israel through its significant long-range missile stores.
Without reviewing the subsistence level US military aid program to Lebanon currently in place and setting more realistic goals, there is little to gain from a security perspective in continuing to provide the LAF with weaponry.
Special thanks to Mike McGraw for his support throughout the writing process and also to Lora Berg, Karim Chaibi and Bill Webb for reviewing the article and Daniel Kurtzer for generously agreeing to be interviewed.