The Lebanese state and its two armies
Beirut - Almost three months into his term, Lebanese President Michel Aoun has declared that his troops are “not powerful enough to fight Israel” and therefore it “is essential to maintain the weapons of the resistance [Hezbollah] to complement the army”.
Aoun’s bold and somewhat tactless statement included a justification of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war as being a defensive measure triggered by terrorist attacks against Lebanon.
Being an ally of both Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, Aoun’s statements should not appear odd. However, as the head of state, elected by the overwhelming majority of parliament, half of whose members do not subscribe to his regional alliances nor the whitewashing of Hezbollah’s role in Syria, these statements will prove problematic.
Aoun’s statement to Egyptian TV station CBC ahead of his mid- February visit to Egypt positions Lebanon as part and parcel of the bloc that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi belongs to. It sees in Syrian President Bashar Assad a strategic partner and a safeguard against a menacing Islamic terrorist threat.
While it is one thing for Aoun the politician to voice his outright support for Iran’s proxy, for the Lebanese president to do so carries local and international implications that neither he nor the Lebanese state could handle.
Locally, Aoun stands at losing his two main supporters: The Lebanese Forces (LF) and the Future Movement (FM), whose leader, Saad Hariri, heads the cabinet. Both factions agreed to vote for Aoun provided he honoured a few obligations, including that he distance himself and Lebanon from the conflict across the border and maintain Lebanon’s neutrality vis-à-vis the Sunni-Shia regional conflict.
These two sides have refrained from demanding the disarming of Hezbollah and its immediate withdrawal from Syria so as not to embarrass or provoke Aoun to side with his regional patrons.
Nonetheless, the president and all his men neither reciprocated nor built on this initiative to strengthen Lebanon’s position, especially by appeasing other Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, that consider Lebanon to have fallen completely into the Iranian sphere of influence.
Further validating these Arab countries’ concerns is the recent speech by Hezbollah Secretary- General Hassan Nasrallah, who built on Aoun’s positive portrayal of his organisation and asserted that its role in Syria falls within international efforts to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS).
As it is customary in his speeches, Nasrallah attacked the United States but went further and called US President Donald Trump “a fool”. While Trump’s popularity and the US global standing will not be affected by Nasrallah’s slurs, the same cannot be said about Lebanon or its army.
As it stands, the Lebanese Army has been the recipient of more than $1 billion in the last eight years in equipment and training from the US government. Through US, as well as other countries’ assistance, this fairly modest force carried out crucial functions, primarily the defence of the eastern border from ISIS infiltration as well as to crack down on other terror networks in the country.
To dishearten the capabilities of one’s army while empowering a non-state militia, Aoun can only empower those terrorists’ factions that will want to punish Hezbollah and whoever supports it for its involvement in Syria.
This being the case, Aoun’s unwarranted statements expose Lebanon and weaken its military, an army that Aoun himself deserted when it valiantly stood up against the invading Syrian Army in 1989.
More importantly, the next time Aoun wishes to visit the White House, it will be good to remember that, if the Lebanese state and its head continue in their skewed pro-Iranian attitude, Trump would be a fool to invest in Lebanon and its army. That scenario certainly would not bode well for a country trying to keep its economy afloat amid the constant risk of US sanctions.