Fault Lines in the Lebanese Armed Forces

3 MINS READJul 20, 2006 | 04:46 GMT
The Israeli air force has attacked a number of key Lebanese army outposts in recent days. It may strike some as peculiar that Israel is targeting Lebanon's armed forces when the Lebanese government has essentially declared itself helpless in the current conflict and has refrained from defending itself militarily against Israeli aggression. Israel's reasoning lies in the complex composition of the Lebanese army. The Lebanese government and military operate on a shaky ethno-sectarian system reflecting the country's explosive mix of religious sects. The armed forces consist of about 60,000 men divided into several brigades, most of which are also divided along sectarian lines. Most army recruits come from rural areas in Lebanon, such as Akkar in the north, Iqlim al-Kharroub in the Shouf Mountains southeast of Beirut, and from southern Lebanon. Approximately 70 percent of the enlisted men are made up of Sunnis and Shia, divided almost equally.
Lebanon's military vastly outnumbers Hezbollah's cadre of trained fighters, but still lacks the ability and will to overtake Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon and force the Shiite guerrilla force to disarm, a demand Israel says must be met before any move toward a cease-fire can be made. This is largely due to the significant number of Hezbollah sympathizers and members operating among the army's conscripts. When the French created Lebanon in 1941, Paris sought to ensure Maronite Christians would monopolize the armed forces' top brass, which was intentionally designed to remain a small, defensive force out of fear that a strong Lebanese army would become embroiled in wider Arab regional conflicts. When Syria became the de facto ruler of Lebanon as result of the civil war in the 1980s, however, the Syrians decided to do some remodeling. Damascus played a direct role in putting Hezbollah members in important positions in the Lebanese army — to the extent that Hezbollah now occupies many of the important positions previously held by Maronites. When Syria withdrew its approximately 20,000 troops from Lebanon following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, it maintained a powerful presence in Lebanon's political, military and intelligence circles, keeping Hezbollah's position intact.
Considering the number of Hezbollah sympathizers and members in the Lebanese armed forces, it comes as no surprise that the militant group is receiving logistical and intelligence support from the army to stage its missile attacks. Hezbollah recently attempted to launch missiles from mobile launchers near the Kfar Shima army base, located in a Druze-Christian area just outside Beirut's southern suburbs. The Israeli air force subsequently destroyed the launcher and killed 10 Lebanese soldiers. Of particular concern is the transfer of technology, such as the French Milan and U.S. TOW anti-tank guided missiles, which are known to be in the Lebanese arsenal and may very well now be in Hezbollah hands in southern Lebanon. The sectarian schisms rooted in Lebanon's armed forces are a cause for concern when considering the aftermath of Israel's military campaign. Once Israel finishes sterilizing Hezbollah's capabilities through a combined air and ground assault, it will demand that the Lebanese government deploy forces to the south to seize Hezbollah positions. This will undoubtedly be a messy and complicated process that will most likely end in failure. The destruction of Hezbollah's militant capabilities will resonate deeply among Hezbollah supporters and Shia within the army, and this in turn raises a serious risk of causing a split in the army as sectarian tensions escalate by the day throughout Lebanon.

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