Western, Arab countries see in Lebanon’s army a viable alternative

Are the contacts between Army Commander General Joseph Aoun and senior officials in the United States, France and Saudi Arabia part of a plan to prepare the man for a greater role in the near future?
Friday 11/06/2021
A file picture shows an anti-government protester holding a placard, as she looks at a Lebanese army soldier near the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
A file picture shows an anti-government protester holding a placard, as she looks at a Lebanese army soldier near the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)

BEIRUT – Some Western and Arab countries are working towards strengthening the Lebanese army, which still enjoys the confidence of the international community amid a collapse of other state institutions in the country, Lebanese political sources told The Arab Weekly on Wednesday.

Over the past few days, the sources said, the United States, France and Saudi Arabia have shown an increased interest in supporting the army so as to preserve what remains of Lebanon. This comes amid a deepening economic crisis reckoned to be the worst in the country’s modern history, with a political class dominated by narrow partisan and factional calculations.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said contacts between Army Commander General Joseph Aoun and senior officials in the three countries could be part of a plan to prepare the man for a greater role in the near future, especially after the failure of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to form a new government.

Hariri had earlier pledged a government of non-partisan specialists tasked with implementing economic, financial and administrative reform according to the French initiative.

But Lebanon’s complex sectarian-based political system made reaching major decisions a significant challenge. Power, including government posts, is distributed among the country’s Shias, Sunnis and Christians who often get bogged down in horse-trading because of fears of losing their calibrated clout.

With the political deadlock set to drag on, the United States, France and Saudi Arabia have set up high-level coordination to support the army and its commander in order to prevent the complete collapse of Lebanon and its transformation into a failed state, controlled by Iran through its regional proxy Hezbollah.

France’s armed forces ministry said earlier this week that Paris will convene a virtual meeting of countries on June 17 to drum up support for the Lebanese army as it seeks to weather an economic crisis that has put the military on the verge of collapse.

Support for Lebanon’s army also came from Riyadh, with Saudi ambassador Walid Bukhari receiving General Joseph Aoun in his house, days after the latter’s visit to Paris and his virtual meeting with US officials from the departments of State and Defence.

Paris, which has led aid efforts to its former colony, has sought to ramp up pressure on Lebanon’s squabbling politicians, after failed attempts to rally them to agree a new government and launch reforms to unlock foreign cash.

Discontent is brewing among Lebanon’s security forces over a currency crash wiping out most of the value of their salaries.

Army chief Joseph Aoun was in France last month to warn of an increasingly untenable situation. In response Paris provided food and medical supplies for military personnel, whose salaries had fallen five or six fold in value, forcing many to take extra jobs.

Two diplomatic sources said the meeting, organised by Paris, would seek aid from countries offering food, medical supplies and spare parts for military equipment. However, it was not designed to provide weapons or other military hardware.

“The objective is to bring attention to the situation of the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces), whose members are faced with deteriorating living conditions and who may no longer be able to fully implement their missions, which are essential to the stability of the country,” France’s armed forces ministry said, adding that it would host the meeting with the United Nations and Italy.

It aims to encourage donations to benefit the LAF, it said.

Countries from the Lebanon International Support Group, which includes Gulf Arab states, the United States, Russia, China and European powers, have been invited.

Lebanon’s pound has crashed 90% since late 2019 in a financial meltdown that poses the biggest threat to stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Over the past few months, France failed to achieve any significant breakthrough on the formation of a new Lebanese government. This failure has led Paris to express its displeasure with Hariri, who is accused of deviating from his main goal to form a new cabinet by engaging in a war of words with President Michel Aoun and his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement.

Observers believe that French moves to support the Lebanese army carry many political implications, as they send a strong message to Lebanon’s political class. In this regard, observers argue that Paris wants to show that it has many options, including support for Army chief Joseph Aoun in the upcoming presidential elections that will take place in 2022.

On his last visit to Beirut, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said legislative and presidential elections should be held on time, at a time when his country seemed to have already abandoned hopes for the formation of a new Lebanese government.

Observers say support for Aoun’s candidacy for the presidential elections sounds like a logical option, especially since military leaders have previously undertaken this task, the last of them being President Michel Aoun.

Since the outbreak of the movement on October 17, 2019, Joseph Aoun has repeatedly rejected calls by the Presidency to intervene and suppress demonstrators.

On more than one occasion, General Aoun had warned the political class about the seriousness of the situation. In March, he criticised “sectarian politicians” and their handling of the crisis during a meeting at the headquarters of the armed forces in Yarzeh.

He said that military officers are part of Lebanon’s social fabric and they “suffer and starve like other people.” Addressing politicians, he asked, “Where are we going, what do you intend to do? We have warned more than once about the danger of the situation and the possibility of it exploding.”

Joseph Aoun’s statements at that time provoked angry reactions from the political class, especially from Hezbollah, which mounted a media campaign against the army chief to question his intentions.

Lebanese politicians believe that Joseph Aoun’s current moves aim at mobilising support for the institution in light of the serious challenges it is facing but that the general has not yet shown any desire to enter the political scene.