Reckless statements expose Lebanon’s precarious defence strategy

Instead of actively seizing on the debate, the Lebanese state allowed the matter of Shebaa to be transformed into petty political rhetoric.
Sunday 05/05/2019
Any port in a storm. Lebanese Minister of Defence Elias Abou Saab during a news conference  in Beirut.  (AP)
Any port in a storm. Lebanese Minister of Defence Elias Abou Saab during a news conference in Beirut. (AP)

Lebanon’s first generation of politicians was of a different breed but what those people lacked in education and intellectual acumen, they made up for with dedication to the country and its wellbeing.

Emir Majid Arslan, Lebanon’s first minister of defence who led the popular resistance against the French mandate in 1943, is famous for allegedly identifying himself and addressing a foreign delegate in Arabic: “I am boom-boom, the minister of defence.”

Arslan’s humorous yet sagacious character greatly differs from Lebanon’s current Minister of Defence Elias Abou Saab, whose university education and ostensibly cultivated demeanour, as well as the critical nature of the period, require him to be more cautious with statements.

In a recent visit to the Lebanese-Palestinian border to survey the readiness and the resources of the 5,000 Lebanese troops deployed in the area, Abou Saab stated that the issue of the Hezbollah arsenal can wait and that “once we are rid of the Israeli dangers, we can look into devising a national defence strategy.”

Despite Abou Saab’s quick retraction, this controversial statement unleashed a gale of criticism and reignited debate about the long-awaited Godot-like national defence policy that wishfully aims to resolve the Hezbollah arms issue and to either decommission the militia or incorporate it into the Lebanese armed forces.

Abou Saab’s reckless statement at the border was no mere faux pas but rather a political Freudian slip and a window into the mind of his faction, Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally.

Abou Saab’s retraction was equally alarming because it reveals how he and his political faction are oblivious or perhaps don’t care about repercussions of the continued disregard of this defence strategy on Lebanon’s economic future. In a desperate attempt to fix the unfixable, Abou Saab asserted that Aoun would attend to the defence strategy once the government budget is set.

Lebanon’s grim economic predicament is not solely the doing of Hezbollah and its unmitigated expansion in the region. Yet for the international community and especially the Gulf States to come to Lebanon’s aid, the state at least cosmetically needs to reclaim its sovereignty and above all its dignity and reassure them that the Lebanese state is not a willing hostage of Iran and its local Lebanese outfit.

Much of the anticipation of the Lebanese centres on the government’s success in passing much needed fiscal reforms, thus allowing the release of $11 billion that the CEDRE conference conditionally earmarked almost one year ago.

CEDRE, as well as the Rome conference that preceded it, urged the Lebanese to reclaim full sovereignty over its lands and to monopolise weapons within the official Lebanese security agencies. At the time, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri vowed to see this process through and declared that Aoun promised to convene a national dialogue to agree on a national defence strategy, one more undertaking Aoun failed to accomplish.

As Lebanon stares the US sanctions against Hezbollah in the face, Abou Saab’s statement from the border is nothing short of suicidal. It not only further exposes Lebanon and places the US-Lebanon Military Assistance and Defence Cooperation at risk, it threatens the $2.3 billion the Lebanese Army has received since 2005.

If Abou Saab elects to defend Hezbollah, he has to do so in his capacity as an ally of the party and not as a minister in the Lebanese government, a government that, more than ever, needs to openly debate the future of Hezbollah’s arms and, coincidently, the future of Lebanon’s failing economy.

Abou Saab’s gaffe was concurrent with the debate unleashed by Druze chieftain and President of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt, whose statement on the Shebaa Farms, an area whose ownership has been in dispute between Lebanon and Syria since the end of the French mandate. Jumblatt reignited the debate by accusing the Syrian regime, as well as Iran, of keeping the matter of the Lebanese ownership of this land vague to expose Lebanon to Israeli retaliation.

Instead of actively seizing on this debate, the Lebanese state, chiefly Aoun and his group, allowed the matter of Shebaa, as it has done with the national defence strategy, to be transformed into petty political rhetoric with the pro-Syrian and Iranian faction accusing Jumblatt of being a lackey of the West and Israel.