Q&A: Lebanon’s defence strategy

Security remains the key issue for ‘buffer state’ wedged between Syria and Israel.

Lebanon elections

The Lebanese army has been deployed in the south and interior amid security fears  [AFP]

Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general, explains why the absence of a unified defence strategy is a key issue for Lebanon’s new government.

In order to understand the situation in Lebanon, you need to know who the local, regional and international players are.

You must keep in mind that Lebanon used to be, and still is, a buffer state. That is, a neutral state lying between two rival countries that serves to prevent direct conflict between them.

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The international players are the USA, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council. Of these, the most important is the USA, which appears to have some form of monopoly over the region’s issues.

The regional players are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Syria, Israel and last, but not least, we have a new important player in Iran.

Lebanon itself is divided into two main factions – the March 14 group that looks set to retain it’s majority in parliament, and the March 8 group which is likely to remain in opposition although it is represented in the cabinet.

These regional players are divided between two axis.

The Hezbollah-led March 8 faction is aligned to Syria, Iran and Hamas in Gaza, while the March 14 coalition is aligned to the KSA, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

So far, the first axis is playing the regional game against the US, whereas the second is allied to Uncle Sam.

The March 14 group fears Iran’s regional plan – especially when it is backed by a nuclear programme and a super power like Russia.

The March 8 group fears the US will seek to impose regime change as part of its strategy in the region as a whole.

Q: Why is defence an issue in Lebanon?

Lebanon, as mentioned earlier, is a buffer state, hence its importance as the ground where rivals settle their accounts. Defence is an issue because Lebanon does not have a grand strategy on how and when to use armed forces for political goals.

It is about the decision on war and peace – a clear example is Israel’s war on Lebanon in July 2006.

Briefly, Lebanon does not have a clear decision making process on when to use force.

This inability to decide on major issues such as declaring war and peace is due to the multi-confessional political system, as well as band-wagoning of local players behind their regional masters.

Q: How are defence forces organised in Lebanon at the moment?

Mainly there is the army and the Internal Security Forces. The army has three services: land, navy and air forces.

The Lebanese army is now deployed along with UNIFIL forces in the south of the country, as well as in the interior, for stability and security missions. The army has long been neglected, as far as equipment is concerned.

Q: Are there plans to bring armed Hezbollah fighters ‘in from the cold’ and incorporate them within mainstream defence forces?

The March 14 coalition proposed – during unity talks after Hezbollah fighters used their arms internally last year for the first time – to incorporate Hezbollah fighters within the army.

Hezbollah refused for many reasons, one of them is the major difference between a conventional army and a resistance force.

In addition to this, we have to take into account, the ideological dimension between a secular army and a religious resistance that adopts Wilayat Al Faqih (rule of Islamic jurists) as a doctrine.

Q: Would the army ever be deployed against Hezbollah? Would it, or could it even, disarm Hezbollah fighters?

In order to deploy the army against Hezbollah, there must be a political decision within the cabinet. Nobody in Lebanon can do it. Moreover, the army cannot disarm Hezbollah as the army itself would likely split along sectarian lines.

Q: How will the Lebanese authorities deal with armed Palestinian fighters on Lebanese soil – in and outside of the camps? What threat do these fighters pose for Lebanese political stability?

Lebanon’s defence strategy is of critical importance as it is a ‘buffer’ state, says Hanna

To deal with the armed Palestinian fighters, a political decision must also be taken which has not yet been agreed.

However, it is certain that the Palestinian issue must be dealt with within an overall, grand strategy backed by the Lebanese government as a whole.

Now there is no such grand strategy. The threat from the Palestinian camps is that they can be used as a safe haven for terrorists, as witnessed by the three-month battle between the army and armed militias in the Naher Al Bared camp.

Q: What other domestic defence issues does Lebanon face?

Lebanon now considers Israel as the main enemy, however, Lebanon has to deal with and assess various security threats.

The assessment of these threats comes from studying the strategic environment.

Moreover, threats can come from an enemy as well as from an former or apparent ally and friend.

Q: Can the Lebanese army withstand threats from either Syria or Israel?

The Lebanese army is a modest one compared to Israeli and Syrian armed forces. But with a good, suitable and feasible strategy, I think we can at least deter any foreign power from threatening the national security of Lebanon.

Q: What international assistance is Lebanon likely to get to strengthen its armed forces?

We have to keep in mind that we don’t have a wish list to ask for arms from abroad, a la carte. We are a minor player in the region – a buffer state. So we have to wait for what the others can give us, not the other way.

Moreover, we cannot ask for arms before having a final military doctrine on how to fight our enemies and on how to deter the threats.

However, Israel, as well as Syria, will not allow Lebanon to have advanced arms that may disturb the balance of power.

It is in the interests of both players to keep Lebanon weak.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera