September 17, 2017

The Lebanese armed forces have defeated ISIS: Now what?

The Lebanese army’s military operation against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the country’s north-eastern territories has proven an over­whelming success. In one swift move, about 600 of the jihadist group’s fighters and their families were expelled from Lebanon and 120 kilometres of border returned to the country’s control.
The Lebanese armed forces (LAF) was thought to be no match for ISIS, feared for its barbarism and its fighting prowess. From a military point of view, little was expected from a fighting group discounted as weak and incapable of defending its own borders from the various incursions that have plagued Lebanon over the years.
During the Lebanese civil war (1975-90), the LAF was divided along political and religious lines. Under this confessional system of operation, accusations of bias in favour of one group over another were commonplace and contrib­uted to the LAF’s weakness. After the war ended, the Lebanese army contingents were reshuffled to overcome the ingrained shortcom­ings foisted upon it by the con­fessional and sectarian system.
However, despite the reforms, little has fundamentally changed. Although the army has helped preserve internal stability in the country, especially in high times of tensions, it has never been regard­ed as sufficiently able to liberate land from various alien occupiers. The long Israeli occupation of the south was only ended after mili­tary resistance, later coopted by Hezbollah, grew powerful enough to at least offer some counter to Israeli military might. It should be remembered that the full Israeli withdrawal of Lebanon didn’t take place until 2000.
Another foreign power that enjoyed 30 years of hegemony over Lebanese affairs was the Syrian Army. Syrian troops were only ousted when angry Lebanese took to the streets after the assassina­tion of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, along with unprecedented pressure from the US and the world to withdraw. Up until then, starting with its occupation in 1976, Syria all but controlled Lebanese politics.
You might have thought that years of invasion and occupation would be enough to convince the Lebanese of the overriding urgency of a national defence strat­egy. However, despite the experi­ence, the Lebanese community has failed to coalesce around a single vision of what that defence strat­egy might be.
Exacerbating the situation still further is the continued presence of Hezbollah, Iran’s staunchest ally and military proxy. It has been markedly reluctant to engage in any discussion on what kind of national strategy might best serve the Lebanese people.
On reflection, it’s hardly surpris­ing. Hezbollah’s reluctance to par­ticipate in any debate would likely speed the restricting of its military powers and consequentially lessen its influence within the country’s political sphere. Irrespective of what might be in the best inter­ests of Lebanon, Hezbollah has steadfastly operated on its own agenda and, as often as not, that of Tehran’s.

So far, tens of national dialogue sessions have been staged in Beirut, each designed to formulate some kind of national strategy. Despite the involvement of former President Michel Suleiman and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, nothing has been achieved.
Compounding the problem fur­ther have been external pressures. From the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Hezbollah has gradually been drawn into the conflict in support of the Syrian re­gime and in opposition to many of the other factions. None of this has been undertaken with the explicit consent of the Lebanese people. However, no one seems to be able to do much about that.

Added to the self-appointed role that Hezbollah has elected to perform outside of Lebanon is the dominant role it has inexorably assumed within the Lebanese political sphere. From participat­ing equally within Lebanon’s complex power-sharing structure, it has come to assume, by denying the country the kind of national consensus initiatives need to progress, the role of final arbiter of any legislative reform. This has ap­plied as much to defence as it has to anything else.
Surprisingly, despite these struc­tural weaknesses, Lebanon has a proven track record of confront­ing terrorism. However, its right to retain the monopoly on power, like any state within the world, remains a long way from being achieved.
In the absence of any kind of regional settlement, which right now seems fanciful in the extreme, Hezbollah will retain its weapons and Lebanon, the country it pro­fesses to defend, will be denied the kind of national defence strategy that might help safeguard its fu­ture and that of its people.