The Lebanese Armed Forces, Hezbollah, and Military Legitimacy
On July 20, 2017, the Lebanese Shi’a militant group Hezbollah confirmed that it had put in motion a plan to dislodge Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) militants from Lebanon. The commencement of Hezbollah military operations preempted the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) from putting in motion plans tied to clearing JAN and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants from Lebanese territory on its own. On July 27, 2017, Hezbollah announced that it and JAN had reached a tentative ceasefire as negotiations intensified to secure safe passage for remaining Nusra fighters to rebel-held areas in Syria.
Hezbollah’s decision to take on JAN militants militarily placed the LAF in an all but untenable position. The LAF’s leadership were uncomfortable that Hezbollah’s campaign against JAN amounted to a media nightmare for the Government of Lebanon and the military. However, it must be said the LAF has had three years to plan, push for, and execute a military option to deal decisively with the presence of JAN and ISIS fighters in Lebanon, and missed several opportunities to do so.
While the LAF has done much to distance itself from the actions of Hezbollah along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, LAF inaction against ISIS was not an option. If the LAF failed to act against ISIS, it would have been accused of kowtowing to Hezbollah. Conversely, in committing to confronting the militants, it risked accusations of collusion with the Shi’a militant group at the expense of the fears and concerns of Lebanon’s Sunni community. Through it all, the LAF would have to deconflict with Hezbollah at the level of LAF command, manage its own internal divisions, and maintain unity of command in the Arsal theater. This meant working to interdict if not avoid past situations where LAF active and retired personnel were accused of trying to liaise between the LAF and Hezbollah on the ground without authorization from LAF headquarters.
Successful and proactive steps by the LAF to shape the security dynamics of Lebanon’s eastern frontier represented a moral turning point not unlike the LAF’s hard-won 2007 battle against Fatah al-Islam militants in Tripoli’s beleaguered Nahr El-Bared refugee camp. The United States (U.S.) and the United Kingdom (U.K.) have stated clearly that as members of the U.S.-led counter-ISIS coalition, they stood ready to assist the LAF, should Lebanon and the LAF request it.
Having worked for weeks to get the necessary forces in position, and with a clear and insulated theater-level chain of command in place, the LAF began the execution of its counter-ISIS campaign against militants on the Lebanese side of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier. The operation – code named “Dawn of the Jurds” – was publicly announced on August 19, 2017. Later that day, Hezbollah and the Syrian Arab Army announced their own counter-ISIS military campaign on the Syrian side of the frontier.
For all the international concern of potential LAF-Hezbollah coordination, the official start date of Dawn of the Jurds is misleading. Well before August 19th, the LAF had already begun taking independent action against ISIS positions and ridge lines east of Ras Baalbek, and the first major thrust of the LAF counter-ISIS operation was executed on August 14 th, 2017.
The net effect of the LAF’s superior battlefield awareness and targeted strike capability was the accelerated demoralization of ISIS forces in Lebanon. By the time elite units were poised to make a major eastward push on August 19, 2017 – the operation’s official execution date – LAF senior commanders and battlefield planners felt confident that they, and not ISIS, would be shaping the battlefield and the tempo of the operation. As LAF regular and elite forces took more ground and consolidated their new positions, the effective use of ISR, targeted strike, SOF and armored mobility led to the description of Dawn of the Jurds by one U.S. military officer in Lebanon as “21st century maneuver warfare by a modern military.”
As the LAF prepared to free the last remaining pocket of territory held by ISIS, Hezbollah publicly announced that it was negotiating with ISIS militants directly to secure definitive information about the whereabouts of LAF military personnel captured by ISIS and JAN in August 2014. This in turn forced a temporary suspension of LAF military operations. A controversial agreement between Hezbollah and ISIS militants would lead to the release of Hezbollah and Iranian prisoners of war in Syria, and the coordinates of the bodies of the then-confirmed dead LAF personnel in ISIS controlled territory. In exchange, Hezbollah would grant the militants safe passage out of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier. On August 29, 2017, ISIS forces began preparations to depart the battlefield. As a result, major LAF maneuver operations were suspended indefinitely.
There is no doubt that some, if not many, in the LAF felt an obligation to go the distance against ISIS and push the militants out or defeat them outright without leaving an option for them to withdraw. However, political maneuvering the final two days of the operations hardly constitute a “victory denied.” In executing Dawn of the Jurds, the LAF needed to accomplish three objectives in its counter-ISIS campaign: 1) the withdrawal of ISIS elements from Lebanese territory, 2) establish with certainty the fate of LAF service men held captive by ISIS since 2014, and 3) and complete the campaign on its own as Lebanon’s principal legitimate national security actors.
As far as the LAF is concerned, it deems that it has more than accomplished what it set out to do. The LAF now sits on 120 square kilometers of formerly ISIS-held territory, and other LAF border units are poised to consolidate the military deployment along the quasi-totality of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier – an outcome that would have been politically unheard of before Syria’s civil war, and a first in Lebanon’s post-Independence history.
Furthermore, for the first time since the Lebanese Civil War, the LAF successfully conducted a theater-level combined arms operation against an asymmetric enemy that had no choice but to integrate static defenses in its quickly-eroding order of battle. The LAF capitalized on more than 10 years of force development and modernization; this includes special forces by regional standards, some of the region’s very best use of conventional ballistic artillery fire, and a targeted ground-to-ground and air-to-ground strike capability, and round-the-clock surveillance and tactical intelligence from ISR-capable aircraft and a fleet of UAVs.
After Dawn of the Jurds, LAF senior commanders and their U.S. and U.K. counterparts are more than comfortable stating that the campaign was conducted with no cooperation or coordination between the LAF and Hezbollah. On the contrary, the LAF’s solo campaign was so successful, that elements close to Hezbollah sought to actively take credit retroactively for the LAF’s successes, and/or promote a narrative of secret coordination between the LAF, Hezbollah and the Assad regime.
What happens after the operation is at least as important as winning the battle itself. With JAN and ISIS evicted from Lebanon, the LAF will now have to turn its attention towards providing Lebanon and its citizens with the level of security and stability it feels they need. This in turn entails permanently consolidating the LAF’s defensive posture along the border with Syria. The LAF has already signaled its intent to hold the positions it has liberated indefinitely. There is no other group or faction that is either there or able to do it in the LAF’s stead. The LAF will have to shape and maintain complete overwatch over the areas liberated by its troops from ISIS.
There are also important military and policy implications for Hezbollah. While Hezbollah has stated publicly that it intends to vacate what little remains of its limited border presence, the LAF’s deployment and activity along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier complicates any hypothetical land-bridge linking Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. Because the LAF now actively polices and monitors much of the border with Syria, there is significant overlap between the LAF’s preference not to coordinate with any Lebanese faction, and the need to actively interdict illicit activity along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier.
Over the last five years, the LAF has not shied away from stopping illicit materials, contraband and weapons from entering Lebanon. Hezbollah has actively worked to avoid using areas where the LAF is known to operate. However, as more LAF units are stood up, doing so has grown increasingly difficult. The real challenge will come if and when Hezbollah accepts or rejects curtailing what remains of its clandestine presence along Lebanon’s still-porous border with Syria.
Lastly, Dawn of the Jurds may have lasting implications for a national security debate long-dominated by Hezbollah’s military preeminence. The LAF’s rapid and professional execution of the counter-ISIS campaign – without anyone’s help, and certainly not with the help of the Syrians or Hezbollah – has shattered the narrative in the minds of many Lebanese that Hezbollah is Lebanon’s sole preeminent national security actor. Presented with such a singular challenge to its self-styled resistance and national security narrative, Hezbollah needed a cease-fire agreement to hasten the withdrawal of ISIS from the Lebanese-Syrian frontier and to consolidate its own reputation. In short, the battle against ISIS in Lebanon may be over, but the war over Lebanon’s national security narrative has only just begun.
The LAF and the Lebanese need countries like the U.S. and other donors and partners to maintain the current momentum of military assistance, especially as the LAF reorients itself and its mission sets after defeating ISIS in Lebanon. Within that, there are practical ways for the U.S. to play a critical supporting role and to ensure that the LAF dominates the battlefield:
- The U.S. Government needs to validate and qualify how it will maintain adequate levels of military assistance to the LAF. As serious questions are raised about plans to zero out Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to 42 out of 47 country recipients – including Lebanon – in 2018, it must be made abundantly clear: failing to support the LAF’s efforts to consolidate its national security role will only serve to roll back unprecedented gains by a stabilizing and a moderating force in Lebanon and the region.
- The U.S. should not shy away from the scale of its commitment to – and presence in – Lebanon. The U.S. military currently maintains a larger special operations presence than most Arab countries with more than 70 SOCCENT trainers and support personnel in Lebanon at any one point in time. U.S. military personnel can and do go almost anywhere in Lebanon, and play a key role in bolstering the LAF’s emerging capabilities. The U.S. should take a page out of Iran’s playbook on Lebanon and take ownership of its close relationship with the LAF.
- As the LAF fought ISIS militants, logistical support and resupplies from the U.S. would have been critical in a sustained fight. The Lebanese military currently has the ability to draw on U.S. CENTCOM regional holdings. The U.S. should reaffirm this privileged status and do so publicly and work closely with LAF leadership and the theater commander to ensure that LAF stocks are adequate in any future asymmetric military engagement.
- Thanks to U.S. military assistance and persistent training, the LAF effectively conducted target designation to then direct unguided and guided fire on high value targets in real-time. Conducting “find, fix, and finish” with dozens if not hundreds of simultaneous targets on a dynamic battlefield was a challenge that presented a much higher degree of complexity. U.S. military leaders should continue to encourage CENTCOM and SOCCENT personnel in Lebanon and the broader Levant to work in partnership with their LAF counterparts to strengthen their ability to sustain complex target acquisition and battle management.
- The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has played a growing role in support of the LAF’s efforts to adequately equip and link up its new land border forces. The LAF has proven itself to be a force for stability in the Levant and a military that takes its regional responsibilities seriously. The U.S. should continue to ensure adequate funding and programming in support of the LAF’s long-term aspirations to secure Lebanon’s land and maritime borders.
Through the Dawn of the Jurds operation, the LAF has proven that it can make excellent use of U.S. and other partners’ lethal and technical security assistance. The operation also challenged the notion that Hezbollah is Lebanon’s only credibly national security actor.
Over the 2005 to 2017 period, successive generations of LAF leadership have grown ever more confident and emboldened by the idea that the LAF can be Lebanon’s preeminent national security actor. Still, the LAF has struggled time and again with what it sees as the false perceptions of LAF-Hezbollah collusion and the potential impact of U.S. policy choices that could hurt institutions like the LAF, all in a failed bid to counter Iranian influence in the Levant.
Inevitably, those who define Lebanon through the lens of Hezbollah will fail to see the LAF as anything but an extension of the militant group. At the same time, as one senior Pentagon official noted on background, one central narrative conveyed during the recent visit by Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Washington DC was that many in the U.S. government and Congress believe that “there is still a Lebanon and LAF worth saving.” In the wake of the LAF’s successful counter-ISIS campaign, there continues to be tremendous good will towards the LAF in U.S. military circles where the LAF is considered a key emerging military ally, and – paradoxically – one of the region’s “fighting” militaries.
Being hawkish on Lebanon in U.S. policy terms has traditionally meant being tough on Hezbollah and other factions and institutions in Lebanon because of the presence of Hezbollah in the country. When the LAF engaged ISIS militarily in August 2017, being hawkish on Lebanon meant doubling down on supporting the LAF because, in the end, a Lebanon with a weak LAF will be fertile terrain for Iran and its local and regional partners. Conversely, supporting the LAF as U.S. civilian and military leaders did during Dawn of the Jurds only served to strengthen the LAF’s domestic and international military legitimacy.
Given the optics and potential consequences – both for Lebanon and for the U.S. – the LAF’s battle against ISIS was a confrontation that it had to win decisively. Failure, or the risk of it, would only bolster Hezbollah’s argument that it and Iran are indispensable to Lebanon’s stability. In executing Dawn of the Jurds, the LAF met and exceeded local and international expectations. In particular, it kindled an additional layer of respect for its growing capabilities in the eye of many Lebanese. In the face of continued questions about the trajectory of future military aid, the U.S. and key partners such as the U.K. need to be bold in supporting a rare success in how they build partner capacity in countries like Lebanon, and on capitalizing on how an allied military like the LAF fights the common threat posed by ISIS Ultimately, supporting the LAF and the Government of Lebanon are the only credible ways to shape the U.S.’s preferred outcomes in Lebanon.
Photo credit: Jeremy Chivers 2014