The Lebanese Armed Forces, Hezbollah and the Race to Defeat ISIS
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 are 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.
Since the accession of General Joseph Aoun to the post of LAF Commander, LAF-Hezbollah relations have remained largely civil – much like the LAF’s relations with all of Lebanon’s major political sectarian factions. However, below the surface, some of the LAF’s recent key military personnel choices have annoyed Hezbollah. Despite that, the LAF is not in a position where it can be openly antagonistic towards Hezbollah – the preeminent faction in Lebanon’s sectarian political landscape.
While the LAF has done much to distance itself from the actions of Hezbollah along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, LAF inaction against ISIS is not an option. Should the LAF fail to act against ISIS, it would be accused of kowtowing to Hezbollah. Conversely, were it to commit to confronting the militants, it risks 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 will 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 means 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.
Hezbollah has three key advantages over the LAF and the Lebanese state. Hezbollah has complete and coherent unity of command, the will to act decisively, and an unmatched ability to shape the narrative and optics of its actions. By contrast, the Government of Lebanon and the LAF have been chronically divided against themselves, and have struggled to take decisive action against the clear and present danger posed by JAN and ISIS. Lebanese civilian and military leaders also struggle to shape the optics of the LAF’s current objectives centered on defending villages along the border with Syria, and not enflaming already precarious tensions with Lebanon’s Syrian refugee population.
The LAF’s battle against ISIS will be far more difficult than Hezbollah’s campaign against JAN. ISIS fighters are more likely to use suicide tactics, and the group is betting that the LAF will hesitate in in the face of mass casualties in the absence of large-scale close air support (CAS). However, failure to act now would be no different than past focal points in post-war and post-Syria Lebanon – such as the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war and the May 2008 Hezbollah takeover of west Beirut – when the LAF failed to act decisively or assert its institutional military preeminence.
By contrast, successful and proactive steps by the LAF to shape the security dynamics of Lebanon’s eastern frontier would represent 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 stand ready to assist the LAF, should Lebanon and the LAF request it.
The LAF has many combat capabilities that other armed factions in Lebanon – including Hezbollah – cannot match. However, as the LAF fine-tunes its planning and resourcing effort, it needs to be honest with itself concerning prerequisites for success, its own capabilities and limitations, and whether it can effectively deal with and adapt to the threat from ISIS:
- Hezbollah must cease all military operations and withdraw from the Arsal AOR. The LAF cannot afford even a lingering impression that it and the Shi’a militant group are working together to defeat ISIS. It also cannot conduct operations so long as Hezbollah continues to hold ground formerly held by JAN. The Government of Lebanon – of which Hezbollah is part – led by the President and the Prime Minister will have to buttress the LAF to ensure that deconfliction is preserved.
- The LAF will have to carefully manage the presence of displaced Syrians east of its current frontline. As LAF units press east and northeast, the Government of Lebanon must work with the LAF to make it clear to camp residents that they are not the target of military operations, and that there is every intent to preserve their wellbeing in concert with international humanitarian organizations operating in Lebanon.
- Public diplomacy and messaging is a strong suit of Hezbollah’s and the LAF will need to do far more to actively communicate its actions, intentions and preferred outcomes. This level of messaging also entails a willingness to be self-critical and open to engagement from a wider mix of interest groups across Lebanon.
- While the LAF has far more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability than in 2014, there are real-world limits to how much the LAF can task its current mix of AC-208s and UAVs to provide adequate ISR coverage. The LAF needs to be ready to leverage the presence of key partner assets in Lebanon – chief among them the U.S. Central Command’s Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) forward presence in Lebanon and the broader Levant.
- Not unlike ISR, the LAF has significantly expanded its ability to find, fix and finish targets in the Arsal AOR. However, managing a larger mix of targets, or queuing and designating multiple targets simultaneously, is another area where the LAF can elect to leverage U.S. SOCCENT capabilities in Lebanon and the broader Levant.
The most important element in any campaign against ISIS will be the need to establish, sustain, and maintain unity of command in the theater of war. When the LAF engages ISIS, the LAF will find itself in a far more challenging theater of war than the one faced by Hezbollah with complexities tied to civilians in the combat zone, the assumption that ISIS still has LAF servicemen in captivity, and the possibility that – unlike JAN – ISIS may make use of suicide tactics to bog down a LAF advance. Establishing this level of unity of command starts and ends with the LAF commander himself.
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 ramps up toward a major military operation. 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’s fight against ISIS ramps up, logistical support and resupplies from the U.S. will be critical. 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 to meet the changing momentum of battling ISIS.
- Thanks to U.S. military assistance and persistent training, the LAF can effectively conduct 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 is a challenge that presents a much higher degree of complexity. If the LAF were to ask for assistance, U.S. military leaders have indicated that they are ready to direct CENTCOM and SOCCENT personnel in Lebanon and the broader Levant to work in partnership or in a joint capacity with their LAF counterparts to conduct complex target acquisition and battle management in the Arsal AOR.
Failing to adequately fund and support the LAF can only serve to strengthen Hezbollah’s own narrative that the U.S. is not serious about supporting the LAF. It would also undermine testing positions Hezbollah has taken on the record, stating that they would only stand down their own military capabilities if and when the LAF is strong enough to provide security and stability in Lebanon.
Over the 2005-2017 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, D.C. was that many in the U.S. government and Congress believe that “there is still a Lebanon and LAF worth saving.” 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 engages ISIS militarily in the days ahead, being hawkish on Lebanon should be more about 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.
Given the optics and potential consequences – both for Lebanon and for the U.S. – the LAF’s battle against ISIS is a confrontation that it must win decisively. Failure, or the risk of it, would only bolster Hezbollah’s argument that it and Iran are indispensable to Lebanon’s stability. Instead, the U.S. and key partners such as the U.K. need to be ready to say and do publicly what they have said they would do privately to the LAF: take any and all action to ensure the LAF does not fail. Ultimately, supporting the LAF and the Government of Lebanon to achieve a decisive military outcome against ISIS and securing the Lebanese-Syrian frontier are the only credible ways to shape the U.S.’s preferred outcomes in Lebanon.
Photo credit: Jeremy Chivers 2014