From the imposing ramparts of a newly constructed military base, fortified by rock-filled blast barriers and an armor-plated watchtower, Lebanese soldiers keep a careful eye on the adjacent border area with Syria, which until not long ago was home to Syrian rebel groups and extremist militants.
International attention on the effort to defeat the so-called Islamic State has focused on the set-piece battles in Mosul in northern Iraq, and now Raqqa, in eastern Syria, the capital of the brutal jihadist group’s self-declared “caliphate.”
But in a remote corner of northeastern Lebanon near the town of Arsal, an estimated 500 ISIS militants are bottled up in rugged barren mountains that straddle the Lebanon-Syria border, surrounded by Lebanese Army troops and fighters from the Shiite Hezbollah organization.
The army closely monitors ISIS movements with newly acquired aircraft, drones, and watchtowers, and barely a day passes without artillery bombardments of the group’s positions in these remote mountains. The daily attrition underlines that, in its small way, Lebanon, the world’s fifth largest per capita recipient of US military funding, is a fully committed member of the global anti-ISIS campaign.
For the army, that’s a long way to come from its status during Lebanon’s civil war and afterward, when it broke apart twice and was just one of several military and paramilitary forces in the country.
Much of its ability today to confront ISIS is owed to the backing of foreign countries, including Britain and especially the United States. Since 2005, the US has plowed more than $1.4 billion into the Lebanese Army, providing weapons, equipment, and training – and helping to significantly boost its capabilities.
But that assistance could soon dry up, as the State Department is proposing drastic funding cuts to Lebanon in its 2018 foreign aid budget, including a complete cessation of the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program. In 2016, the FMF to Lebanon amounted to $85.9 million. The move portends a potentially tougher stance by the administration of President Trump against Lebanon in the months ahead and has sent alarm bells ringing in Beirut and among the Army’s supporters in Washington.
Counterbalance to Hezbollah
Initially, it was hoped that a stronger national army would act as a counterweight against Iran-backed Hezbollah. Officials in the Bush administration saw an opportunity to contain Iran by potentially weakening its Lebanese ally, while Lebanese political opponents of Hezbollah hoped a stronger army would shift the domestic power balance.
Nevertheless, despite the improvements to the Army in the past few years, the well-financed and battle-tested Hezbollah is the true military power in Lebanon. Yet if the initial ambition faltered, the conflict in neighboring Syria and the emergence of extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat Fatah ash-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, has helped maintain the momentum in Washington for building a stronger Lebanese Army.
“The United States started heavily investing in the [Lebanese Army] after 2006 with the theory that if you built up Lebanon's national institutions, that would reduce the relative power – and the perceived need for – Hezbollah among Lebanon’s population,” says Andrew Exum, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense in the Obama administration.
While that theory did not pan out, Mr. Exum adds, “it doesn't mean it was a bad investment.”
“An unexpected benefit of the increased capacity of Lebanon's Army has been that the United States has had a valuable ally in the fight against groups like the Islamic State and Nusra. That’s why cutting support to the [Lebanese Army] is so strategically stupid,” he says.
The total US aid budget to Lebanon for 2018 has been slashed by more than 50 percent under the proposed cuts, and Washington’s contribution to the United Nations peacekeeping force operating in south Lebanon has been cut by some $70 million.
“This is a new approach by the administration. It’s all change for Lebanon. There’s a perfect storm brewing against us,” says a Lebanese lawmaker.
Cuts across the board
Yet Lebanon is not alone. Washington analysts say significantly reducing the State Department budget is the overwhelming reason for the proposed cuts.
The Lebanese Army “is not the only foreign military seeing cuts in proposed US assistance, it’s across the board,” says David Schenker, director of the program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Noting that the administration slated Jordan for a 20 percent cut in its assistance, Mr. Schenker says the difference is that Jordan has strong support in Congress.
“Lebanon just doesn’t have that same kind of constituency,” he says.
Still, analysts and diplomats caution that the State Department’s draft budget is unlikely to be adopted by Congress as it stands, and that pushback from some quarters could see substantial changes to the final paper. The Pentagon backs the military support program to Lebanon, and members of Congress who have visited here recently have come away impressed with the Lebanese Army’s performance, diplomats and analysts say.
The Lebanese Army is set to receive two Super Tucano light attack aircraft in October with another two to follow in 2018 as well as the first batch of 32 M2 Bradley armored fighting vehicles, making Lebanon only the third country alongside the US and Saudi Arabia to field them.
But maintaining the equipment alone costs a substantial annual sum and requires a “steady level of funding” for both the Lebanese Army and supporting industries, notes Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington who writes frequently on the Lebanese military.
Critics of the Lebanese Army, meanwhile, say it cooperates too closely with Hezbollah and does nothing to impede the smuggling of weapons into the group’s arsenals in Lebanon nor stop Shiite fighters from crossing into Syria to fight rebels opposed to the Damascus regime. In March, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described the Lebanese Army as a “subsidiary unit of Hezbollah.”
The reality is more complex, analysts say. The Lebanese Army and Hezbollah represent two military forces crammed into a tiny space that have learned to live with each other, not always comfortably.
Display of state authority
Two months ago, Hezbollah handed over a string of military outposts it had built in 2014 along the mountainous eastern border with Syria to protect nearby Shiite-populated villages from attack by Syria-based militants. The army has been improving the fortifications.
At the Nimrod base, named after the remains of a nearby Roman temple, an observation tower protected by layers of ballistic steel, bullet-proof glass, and anti-missile mesh netting allows the soldiers to watch over the nearby valleys, potential infiltration routes. The red, white, and green cedar tree flag of Lebanon is emblazoned on all four sides of the tower, a rare display of state authority over a remote and traditionally neglected stretch of the border.
The army is expected to take over the remaining border outposts manned by Hezbollah in the coming weeks, which will result in the Lebanese military establishing an uninterrupted presence along the entirety of Lebanon’s frontier with Syria for the first time since the country’s independence 73 years ago.
Such a feat would not have been possible without the support of the US, Britain, and other nations, which is why, says Mr. Nerguizian of CSIS, the US should continue backing the Lebanese Army.
“If the US is serious about having any kind of relationship with Lebanon, or any kind of clout,” he says, “it starts and ends with the [Lebanese Army].”
Tony Badran, a research fellow specializing in Lebanon and Syria at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, says that the US nevertheless has good reason to worry about the army’s ties to Hezbollah.
“There are still some people out there who buy the argument of Lebanon as a good partner – especially at [the Pentagon] – and some are still convinced by the obsolete notion of the Lebanese standing up to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad,” he says.
“That has now mostly shifted to, ‘Oh, we can benefit from standing them up against the jihadis,’ ” he adds, “and in the end that might save them from being zeroed out.”
WINEP’s Schenker, who from a post in the Pentagon from 2002-06 saw the first fruits of military assistance to Lebanon, says the Lebanese Army has profited from the US assistance – as has the US.
The army is "one of the few operating national institutions in the country,” he says. “They’ve used this money to improve their capabilities, and in some ways that has suited us.”
Staff writer Howard LaFranchi contributed from New York.