Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army: cooperation or competition?

Recently, an unofficial security paradigm has emerged in Lebanon between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Hezbollah. Cooperation or competition between them is likely to be a part of the security equation in the Near East.

On August 3rd 2011, the Lebanese border with Israel experienced a sudden and contained outburst of violence as the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) clashed with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) over a routine patrol operation by IDF units. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Hezbollah operatives were providing active support to LAF snipers engaged in the fighting. These allegations led the US Congress to reconsider its military aid provided to the Lebanese governmental security forces. In fact, the idea of US military aid to Lebanon was developed in 2005 to support the March 14th pro-west coalition. Between 2005 and 2008, Lebanon received $400million. The August 2010 firefight and the fall of Saad Hariri’s government in January 2011 led the US to reorganize their aid to the LAF, freezing over $100million of direct funds. US capital was meant to achieve two goals: enable the LAF to acquire a qualitative edge over the heavily armed Hezbollah thus limiting the shi’a militia influence and extend the Lebanese security forces' ability to counter the Sunni radical threat harboured in Palestinian refugee camps. The majority position Hezbollah gained in the Mikati government and an increasing diplomatic alignment with Iran and Syria are clues of a redefinition of Lebanese internal and external politics. The underlying question consists in attempting to define the relation between the LAF and Hezbollah.

In the short term, both actors are likely to experience further restraints on their supplies. The LAF will not see its arsenal qualitatively increased by western powers as the Lebanese state maintains a belligerent position in regards of Israel. The looming fall of the Al Assad regime and the economic troubles Iran is facing are likely to alter the two countries ability to furnish the LAF or Hezbollah with the weaponry needed. In this current scenario, cooperation or competition between the LAF and Hezbollah is likely to be a part of the security equation in the Near East.

A tacit agreement: cooperation between Hezbollah and the LAF

During the last couple of years, an unofficial security paradigm has emerged in Lebanon. The control of the territory has been divided between the LAF and Hezbollah. The two armed organizations are rarely competing over contested areas. Recent clashes in Tripoli, low scale unrest in Beirut experienced in August 2010 or questions of international relevance such as the Estonian hostage crisis are handled by the governmental security forces. On the other hand, order and security of the Southern region of the country and the capital’s Southern suburb are ensured by Hezbollah operatives. Such an official tacit agreement over turf demarcation is an overt affront to UN Security Council 1701 which called for the disarmament of Lebanese militias.

In the first days of the month of February the LAF deployed a great number of units on the Lebanese North Eastern border - Wadi Khaled area - with Syria. This move came following an alleged request by the Syrian authorities to block the smuggling of weapons and ammunitions from Lebanon to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Hezbollah backed government is likely to use the LAF for two reasons. On one hand, defending the Lebanese population and country’s territorial integrity remains the army's top priority; on the other hand LAF units may be used in the Sunni regions of Northern Lebanon to block the help provided by Lebanese citizens to the FSA.

An area of expanding cooperation between the LAF and Hezbollah is intelligence gathering and counter-espionage missions. The appointment of Major General Abbas Ibrahim, a Hezbollah representative, as the head of the General Security shows both the influence of the shi’a party over traditionally Sunni and Christian institutions and the blurring of lines between LAF and Hezbollah tasks. Cooperation in this field is especially marked in South Lebanon. Hezbollah uses its deep presence in the region while the LAF takes advantage of its more advanced signal and communication tools.

An ongoing power struggle: competition between the Lebanese State and armed militias

Following a Parliamentary vote on May 7, 2008, Lebanon descended into an open armed confrontation between rival political parties. During the period that spanned from May 8 to May 14, Hezbollah took over the Rafiq Hariri International Airport, militarily controlled the capital and moved to assault adversaries’ stronghold through the invasion of West Beirut, the attack on former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s residence in Qoreitem and on Walid Jumblatt’s Druze stronghold in the Shouf. The situation was diffused once the LAF deployed additional units country wide to decrease tensions. Given that overt small scale clashes between Hezbollah and the LAF were on the periphery of the crisis, these events highlighted the underlying power struggle over competing security providers in Lebanon. The Hezbollah ability to effectively take control of the country’s neuralgic centre has shown the overall superior military capabilities of the Shi’a militia and its willingness to protect its interests at the expense of Lebanese stability. The fact that the LAF didn’t take an active role until late May highlights that there are underlying tensions in the Lebanese armed forces and that there are concrete fears of soldiers defecting in periods of confessional tensions.

The topic of diverging interests between Hezbollah and the LAF may further be underlined by the formation of the two entities themselves. In a country where confessional affiliation determines a major part of policy making, the armed branch of the Party of God is almost exclusively formed by shi’as while, on the other hand, the LAF is to some extent a more Sunni-Christian entity. The March 14th coalition is likely to try to further empower the LAF through attempts to secure arm deals with western powers. Besides, Hezbollah and the current Lebanese government are pushing for closer military cooperation with Teheran and open support of Damascus, both regimes being the principle supporters of the Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the LAF may find its contacts with western powers limited by its de facto status of war with Israel, and Hezbollah is likely to relatively lose part of its regional aura due to the negative situation its sponsors are in. The only security provider which may keep receiving western aid are the internal security forces (ISF), as their role is meant to deter Lebanese armed militias from posing a serious threat to the central power.

Conclusion: source of tensions or impasse?

The complete control of the Lebanese territory by the LAF appears to be unfeasible in the short term. The current government, along with a growing arsenal, provides Hezbollah with a power position which helps the militia cement its edge over some regions. Disarmament of shi’a armed groups is not a realist possibility. Nevertheless, tensions between the LAF and Hezbollah may not materialize to the extent that the Lebanese government is controlled by Hezbollah and the March 8th coalition. As the Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour stated, Lebanon is not interested in intervening in Syrian internal affairs. In current affairs Hezbollah’s interests seem to be privileged and the ‘resistance’ rationale takes the lead in Lebanese international relations. In this perspective, the LAF may tend to be used as an Hezbollah power multiplier, thus reviving sectarian tensions as Sunnis and some part of the Christian contingent do not accept a Hezbollah-led foreign and defence policy.

About the author

Riccardo Dugulin holds a Masters degree from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and is an international security specialist. He is currently working in Paris for a Medical and Security Assistance company. He has worked for a number of leading think tanks in Washington DC, Dubai and Beirut. Personal website: www.riccardodugulin.com