Western nations count on army to pull Lebanon out of crisis

General Aoun’s comments amount to a very clear indication about the future role that the Lebanese Army might play.
Monday 19/07/2021
Lebanese Army Commander General Joseph Aoun (R) and French Army Chief of Staff General  Francois Lecointre,  salute the flag in Paris, last May. (AFP)
Lebanese Army Commander General Joseph Aoun (R) and French Army Chief of Staff General Francois Lecointre, salute the flag in Paris, last May. (AFP)

BEIRUT –

Lebanese and Arab political sources underlined on Monday the significance of statements by Lebanon’s army chief General Joseph Aoun, who said earlier last week that “everyone knows that the military institution is the only one that is still effective.”

Some of the sources, who spoke to The Arab Weekly, noted General Aoun’s comments amounted to a very clear indication about the future role that the Lebanese Army might play, at least when it comes to maintaining security in a country that has been on the brink of social explosion.

A source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, ruled out a military coup in Lebanon, pointing out that the country's conditions do not allow for this scenario, despite the collapse of all other Lebanese institutions, starting with the presidency and a cabinet formation deadlock.

"The Lebanese military command does not intend to enter into a direct confrontation with Hezbollah, which boasts a combination of military might and political influence,” the source said, noting that  “the Iran-backed Shia group has gained extensive ground experience from its participation in the ten-year-long war in Syria."

Preserving the Lebanese army has become a priority and a focus of American and European countries, particularly France. Meeting in Riyadh, earlier this month, American and French ambassadors to Beirut discussed aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces and Internal Security Forces.

Lebanese diplomatic sources said that Saudi Arabia, which is coordinating with the American and French ambassadors through its ambassador in Beirut, Walid al-Bukhari, is open to the idea of supporting the Lebanese Army by providing monthly allowances for soldiers and officers.

This comes at a time when Lebanese soldiers are facing difficulties in providing food for their families and paying for transport to their barracks.

Discontent has been brewing in the security forces as Lebanon’s currency has lost more than 90% of its value against the dollar, driving down soldiers’ wages. Many have taken extra jobs. Some have quit.

 The sources who spoke to The Arab Weekly, revealed Hezbollah had been complicating the army’s mission in Sunni areas, notably in Tripoli.

Sunni or Alawite groups affiliated with the Shia party, the sources said, have managed to infiltrate Tripoli, taking advantage of the deteriorating social and economic situation there.

Hezbollah remains wary of any role the Lebanese Army might play in the future, especially since most of the officers and soldiers are Sunnis.

Washington and its European allies, however, think the army constitutes the only reliable institution that can pull Lebanon out of its many crises. This comes as Lebanon’s leaders have failed to overcome differences and end a political stalemate that has been dragging on for months.

The political class in Lebanon, observers say, has failed to address key security issues, the thorniest of which is the issue of Hezbollah's weapons.

The political players in the country, in fact, have merely been struggling to preserve their interests and political gains under their party's control. And to this end, everyone appears satisfied with the status quo, including those who present themselves as opponents of Hezbollah and its ties with Iran.

Over recent months, the army has been caught in confrontations with Lebanese protesters who have been demonstrating against failure of the political class. The pressure on the army particularly increased after massive protests forced veteran Sunni politician Saad al-Saad to announce his resignation and that of his cabinet in January 2020.

General Aoun’s statements last Friday came one day after Hariri abandoned efforts to form a new government, plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis.

The Lebanese army chief said the situation in the country was worsening and would further escalate as a financial crisis stokes political and social tensions.

“Our responsibility is large in this period and we need to preserve the security of the nation and its stability and prevent chaos,” he said in a speech to army personnel posted on the army’s official Twitter account.

Lebanon is in the throes of an economic meltdown that is threatening its stability and has been dubbed by the World Bank as one of the deepest depressions of modern history.

“Our nation trusts us and so does the international community,” General Aoun said.

He added the responsibility for the army was great at a time when its personnel were “living with the anxiety of providing for the basics of a good life,” for their families.

“Everyone knows that the military institution is the only one that is still effective.”