Tony Badran

The sum of its parts

The LAF is indeed symbolic of the nation, with all the flaws and divisions that entails

Lebanese Army soldiers patrol the area around the Bilal bin Rabah mosque in the Abra district of the southern city of Sidon on June 25, 2013, after troops seized control of the headquarters of a radical Sunni sheikh, Ahmad al-Assir, whose supporters battled the army for two days, killing 16 soldiers

After a period of absence and rumors that he’d been killed, the controversial Salafist figure Ahmad al-Assir issued a new video message in which he attacked the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as "the primary tool domestically" for Hezbollah. Assir may be outside the mainstream on most issues, but his characterization of the role of the LAF likely has significant resonance well beyond his immediate circles. The fact that a considerable segment of Lebanon shares this assessment of the LAF carries important implications for US policy in Lebanon and the region more broadly.


The US has long viewed the LAF as the country's sole truly national institution. In a way, it could be said that Washington's Lebanon policy has become increasingly an LAF-centered one, especially as Washington now defines its priority in the region as combatting Sunni terrorism. But this view of the LAF is clearly problematic and requires revision. For that, the US should consider not just the institution's present as a tool for Hezbollah, but also its past.


The folklore surrounding the LAF notwithstanding, it is impossible to regard the LAF as anything but a reflection of Lebanese society, its divisions, and its pathologies. As such, when it wasn't an instrument of Syrian rule, the LAF often reflected the desire of the constituent communities to dominate their domestic rivals. 


For the most part, this dynamic played out primarily with the Maronite and the Shiite communities. In particular, the period from 1983-1984 is axiomatic.  Following the defeat of the PLO and the collapse of its allies in West Beirut following the Israeli invasion, the Amin Gemayel government, backed by the US, moved to establish government authority in the capital by deploying the LAF there. Military Intelligence began conducting raids and arrests – and, some claim, assassinations – against militiamen. The problem is, this government crackdown didn’t apply to the main Christian militias of the period. In fact, elements from the Lebanese Forces militia would often deploy alongside the LAF and perpetrate anything from harassment to serious crimes. In many respects, that model mirrors the current phenomenon of joint Hezbollah-LAF deployments, as well as the close synergy between Hezbollah and the LAF Directorate of Intelligence.  


Back then, the Lebanese president’s opponents dubbed the LAF “Amin Gemayel’s army” and resisted its presence in Beirut. Of course, these opponents had an agenda of their own, backed by the Assad regime, which was retaking the initiative and plotting its control of Lebanon. The main ally of the Syrians in Beirut at the time was the Amal militia. Amal opposed Gemayel’s attempt to assert his government’s authority in Dahiyeh through the LAF which, in conjunction with the Lebanese Forces, ended up blockading and shelling Dahiyeh. Ultimately, Amal forced the split of the LAF, when the Army’s Sixth Brigade broke off and joined forces with Amal in expelling the units loyal to Gemayel out of West Beirut in what was known as the uprising of February 6, 1984.


The reunification of the LAF under Syrian rule after the end of the war did not end this basic paradigm of the dynamic between the LAF and the Lebanese communities: it merely reconfigured it. Of particular note is the period since Bashar al-Assad assumed control of the Lebanon portfolio in 1998. Bashar used the LAF, whose previous commander, Emile Lahoud, was now president, to keep the Christian opposition as well as the traditional political class in check in what became known as “the joint Syrian-Lebanese security system.” This was the period when the Directorate of Intelligence and the other security apparatuses were busy going after Lebanese Forces and Aounist activists. By and large, the Syrian reconfiguration of the LAF led to the rise of both Shiite as well as pro-Syrian Maronite officers – a reality that persists to this day.


Only now, in contrast to the 1980s, the LAF has been wrapped with layers of folklore, opportunistically played up by Hezbollah, to turn it into an actor beyond reproach even as the Shiite party uses it to pressure its Sunni opponents. In addition, the LAF’s doctrine was changed in the Syrian era to be in line with Damascus, and to be entirely supportive of and subordinate to Hezbollah. The infamous “Army, People, Resistance” formula, which Hezbollah has insisted on including in the cabinet’s policy statement in the years following the Syrian withdrawal, can in fact be traced back to at least 2003. The redefined role of the LAF as a domestic police and anti-riot force, first articulated by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and reiterated last week in Parliament by Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah, became that of a strike force in street clashes involving the Party of God’s local adversaries – though never the Shiite group itself or its allies. In the final analysis, the current power configuration of Hezbollah domination, with the LAF as an auxiliary force, has its roots in Assad’s “security system.”


What’s curious about US policy today, then, is that it effectively endorses this configuration. Despite the pretense of backing a neutral national institution, the US is actually supporting an arrangement that reflects the worst of Lebanon’s sectarian maladies, where one group – in this latest iteration, the Shiites – controls instruments of the state against other groups – i.e. the Sunnis. Except this current configuration is underwritten by an Iranian force, Hezbollah, and thus has wider reverberations. It means that the US is supporting what is unmistakably an Iranian order.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Sitting upon their pedestal. (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Zayyat)

"When it wasn't an instrument of Syrian rule, the LAF often reflected the desire of the constituent communities to dominate their domestic rivals."

  • jrocks

    true. i remember the time aoun's army in 1989 made our life hell in the metn 'support' base.

    March 28, 2014