As Lebanon struggles with an economic crisis and the new coronavirus pandemic, momentum is building in Washington to curtail or end U.S. assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Such a move could diminish U.S. influence and empower Russia and Iran. But the LAF is not helping its advocates to make their case. The Lebanese military must address Hezbollah’s growing arsenal if the LAF is to retain U.S. support.

The United States has fostered close ties with the LAF for years “as the sole legitimate defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty.” Pentagon leaders laud it as a capable partner. Since 2010, the United States has provided more than $1.8 billion in security assistance to the LAF. Among other things, the United States demands that the LAF counter the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah — an entity with the blood of Americans on its hands and a foreign terrorist organization pursuant to U.S. law.

The fiscal 2020 appropriations bill, signed into law by the president, reiterates that the purpose of American funding is to “professionalize the LAF to mitigate internal and external threats from non-state actors, including Hizballah.” (“Hizballah” is an alternative spelling for Hezbollah.)

The United States expects the LAF to use the funding to “strengthen border security and combat terrorism,” as well as “interdicting arms shipments, and preventing the use of Lebanon as a safe haven for terrorist groups.”

However, the LAF has been unwilling to lift a finger against Hezbollah. The problem is that doing so could spark an internecine conflict. And the Lebanese want to avoid those at all costs, given how damaging they have been in the past.

A conundrum

To be clear, the problem is not one of capability. A robust LAF capability was on display in August 2017, when the force utilized U.S.-provided equipment and munitions to conduct a successful counterterrorism operation that cleared ISIS- and al-Qaida-linked terror groups near the towns of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa. According to a December 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office, Pentagon officials note that Lebanon was the “only country in the region to successfully expel ISIS from its territory without the involvement of U.S. ground forces.”

But even then, there are serious questions about reports that the LAF coordinated with Hezbollah in the 2017 operation and others. The United States cannot support the LAF if it counts Hezbollah as one of its partners.

Hezbollah cannons pound militants' positions on the Lebanon-Syria border. (Syrian Central Military Media via AP)
Hezbollah cannons pound militants' positions on the Lebanon-Syria border. (Syrian Central Military Media via AP)

This explains the Pentagon’s conundrum. The U.S. military, consistent with the National Defense Strategy, increasingly seeks to lean on partners in the Middle East so that the United States can focus on great power competition with China and Russia. And it is good to have a capable military in Lebanon that can act effectively against Sunni terrorist organizations such as ISIS, al-Qaida and their affiliates.

Then-commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel testified in February 2019 that a “modest” U.S. investment in the LAF has created a “modernized, legitimate fighting force” with demonstrated ability to conduct counterterrorism operations and “protect the Lebanese people from internal and external threats.”

But capability and the willingness to use that capability are two different things. The LAF’s refusal to counter Hezbollah has enabled the Iran-backed terror group to undertake an extraordinary military buildup that includes an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles.

The LAF’s unwillingness to address Hezbollah’s growing arsenal is particularly concerning in light of what Gen. Votel called Hezbollah’s “provocative actions” that threaten Israel’s security and “Lebanon’s stability.”

That is putting it mildly. One study almost two years ago called Hezbollah’s terrorist militia the “world’s most heavily armed non-state actor.” Israeli officials say Hezbollah’s military capacity exceeds that of many European states.

According to recent reports, Hezbollah is now stockpiling even more dangerous weapons. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is working with Hezbollah to create facilities in Lebanon to convert unguided rockets and missiles to precision guided munitions, or PGM, that can reliably strike within a few meters of their intended target. Hezbollah now has dozens of these PGMs, or even a few hundred. These weapons could enable Hezbollah to overwhelm Israeli defenses with PGMs, striking strategic targets in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion Airport, Haifa port or the Dimona nuclear facility with potentially catastrophic effects.

This is putting increased political and military pressure on Israeli leaders to undertake a large-scale preemptive strike to prevent Hezbollah from launching a war against Israel that could inflict catastrophic damage. Such a preemptive operation would devastate the lives and communities of thousands of Lebanese. This is because Hezbollah has deliberately placed a significant portion of its arsenal, warehouses and production facilities in civilian areas.

Even the most ardent advocates for continued U.S. funding admit that during this buildup, the LAF was nowhere to be found. And the LAF’s inaction endangers continued U.S. funding.

Tying money to action

In his testimony last year, Gen. Votel implicitly acknowledged that the LAF is not today a counterbalance to Hezbollah. He said the LAF “has the potential to eventually form a deterrent to increased Iranian activity, and a vital counterbalance to Hezbollah influence.” That is good news, but time is running out.

The Trump administration has famously scrutinized U.S. foreign assistance, seeking and implementing significant cuts. Some of those cuts have been prudent and many of them ill-advised. Regardless, at a time when U.S. policymakers, voters and taxpayers are inclined to cut U.S. commitments and expenditures in the Middle East, it may only be a matter of time until they say pull the plug on the LAF.

The debate now centers around whether it is realistic to demand that the LAF take concerted action against Hezbollah’s PGM supply lines and its arsenal. The LAF’s critics say they must take action. Proponents of the LAF say this would only lead to civil war. But it is a false binary to suggest that one must choose between accepting LAF inaction and a civil war between the LAF and Hezbollah.

Consider the LAF’s performance during the recent months of protest in Lebanon. The LAF came under significant pressure from Hezbollah to turn on unarmed, peaceful Lebanese protesters. Yet, instead, in several instances, the LAF apparently protected protesters from thugs associated with Hezbollah.

Supporters of the the Shiite Hezbollah movement watch as the its leader Hasan Nasrallah delivers a speech on a screen in the Lebanese capital Beirut's southern suburbs on Jan. 5, 2020. (Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of the the Shiite Hezbollah movement watch as the its leader Hasan Nasrallah delivers a speech on a screen in the Lebanese capital Beirut's southern suburbs on Jan. 5, 2020. (Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)

This willingness to disregard and even stand against Hezbollah suggests it might be possible for the LAF to implement a new liminal, or gray zone, strategy focused on raising the visibility and costs of the Hezbollah PGM project. The LAF could play a role in increasing awareness that Hezbollah is allowing Tehran to drag Lebanon into an avoidable conflict with Israel that will be far more damaging than the war in 2006.

From a U.S. perspective, such an approach would represent an improvement over the LAF’s current do-nothing policy. It does not solve the problem of the LAF’s unwillingness to disarm a nonstate actor. Rather, it’s a small, initial step that could slow the march to a disastrous war between Hezbollah and Israel.

There is no guarantee that such a move now will save the LAF in Washington. COVID-19, the new coronavirus, has inflicted a body blow on the U.S. economy, and the federal government is engaging in large-scale deficit spending in an effort to stave off a depression. There may be no appetite to back the LAF after this. And if the PGM project continues apace, it may not matter because Israel may act before the next funding cycle.

For LAF, the pressure is on. The loss of American support would be a shame. The United States has worked for many years to improve the LAF’s capabilities and solidify its reputation “as the sole legitimate defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty.” Those efforts have built an increasingly capable LAF that is among the most respected institutions in Lebanon.

An end to U.S. funding for the LAF would damage U.S. influence, undermine a counter-ISIS partner, reinforce messages of American unreliability and create a vacuum that Moscow would almost certainly try to fill with Russian personnel, equipment, weapons and training. Moreover, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah would be stronger in Lebanon, the terror group’s PGM arsenal would continue to grow, and Israel would be less safe.

But if the LAF does not take action, those making such arguments will eventually lose. More worryingly, the people of Lebanon will lose. The Iranian regime and Hezbollah will get the war they are looking for. And the LAF will have done nothing to stop it.

Bradley Bowman, a former U.S. Army officer and Senate staffer, serves as the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.