The Lebanese Army / 60,000 Soldiers Not Really Looking for Work

When Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora wept at a summit of Arab foreign ministers, on Monday, he knew that his proposal to deploy the Lebanese Army along the border with Israel was approved by his cabinet. Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri's agreement with Hezbollah was particularly critical: Without a nod from Nasrallah, the army stands no chance of taking up positions in southern villages, much less of creating a security zone.

The Lebanese Army is not trained to serve as a professional military force. It functions as a fine and efficient police force and knows how to disperse demonstrations. It can even detain hashish growers in the Bekaa and fire ancient cannons at planes, but "if required to wage war on the ground, it is best to invite another army," explains a Lebanese military commentator.

"The Lebanese Army can operate inside the nation only if all political forces allow it to operate. If it becomes necessary to contend with armed militias within the country - and Hezbollah, the Palestinians, and the Druze possess such forces - the army might have a problem, not only with fire power but mainly with entangled loyalties."

According to "The Middle East Strategic Balance," published by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, there are 61,400 soldiers registered in the Lebanese Army: 60,000 of them are in the infantry, about 1,000 in the air force and 400 in the navy. There is no reason to be impressed by the size of the force; even if one examines only the infantry, this army is unskilled, has antiquated equipment, with an eternal shortage of replacement parts, and an annual budget of about $500 million. Most of this sum goes for salaries, maintenance of the Internet site and official receptions.

In the early 1980s, former president Amin Gemayel strove to establish a skilled, well-equipped, professional army. He actually received substantial support from the American government to the tune of $1 billion over a period of several years. When fighting began in the Chouf region of Lebanon, following Israel's first withdrawal, the army crumbled into ethnic and political factions, and Gemayel's dream was nipped in the bud.

In 1987, as many as 35,000 soldiers were registered in the Lebanese Army but only half of them obeyed orders issued by the central command. The rest, despite their "military" salary, served in a variety of political parties. American funding was slashed in response, and the annual $100 million allocation was reduced to only $15 million.

This month, the U.S. Congress is slated to discuss its fiscal assistance to the Lebanese Army, approximately $10 million before the current war began. This relative pittance was earmarked to somewhat improve the supply of replacement parts for weapons. However, to receive even this scant funding, Lebanon must fulfill certain conditions and two of them make it difficult to deploy forces in the South. For example, some Congressmen demand that the Lebanese Army deploy before funds are transmitted, and some demand that the army first clear its ranks of Hezbollah sympathizers.

Herein lies another question as to the Lebanese Army's ability to deliver. Who's loyal to whom? The assumption is the Lebanese fighting force more or less reflects the ethnic structure of the nation. Thus, 35 percent are Shi'ite, 21-22 percent Christian, 7 percent Druze and 27 percent Sunni Muslims. The critical question is not only to whom the soldiers are loyal but to whom are the officers and commanders loyal?

The army is led by General Michel Suleiman, a Christian considered loyal to Syria. He was enlisted by Jubran Koreyah, former official spokesman of Hafez Assad. On the eve of the war, Suleiman was asked if he hopes to be president of Lebanon after Emile Lahoud's term is up in a year (Lahoud's term was extended in response to Syrian pressure). Suleiman said that he does not seek the position. But just the mention of his name as a candidate raised difficult questions among those who oppose Syria's presence in Lebanon: Would the nation once again be led by a president acting in the name of Syria, like Lahoud?

Chief of Staff Shawki Masri, appointed this year, serves under Suleiman. The chief of staff position is reserved for the Druze, just as command of the army is reserved for Christians. Similarly, the presidency is a Christian position, the head of parliament a Shi'ite position, and the prime ministry a Sunni position. But the chief of staff must be more than merely Druze: He owes almost personal loyalty to Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has become responsible for chiefs-of-staff, in general. Does this mean that Masri is the loyal servant of anti-Syrian Jumblatt, a sworn foe of Hezbollah, or is he devoted to his pro-Syrian boss, Suleiman, who describes Hezbollah as "Lebanon's smart weapon?" By the way, in April, 2005, when Suleiman received a medal from Syria following the Syrian Army's withdrawal from Lebanon, he gratefully described the "contribution of Syria to peace in Lebanon" as a miracle.

Other questions of loyalty surround the positions of President Lahoud. The 1989 Taif Accord states that the president is the chief commanding officer of the army. In other words, at least theoretically, he is free to overturn the plans of Prime Minister Siniora and to order the army to refrain from deployment in the South. Thus, Siniora is forced to seek and receive Lahoud's approval of the plan, just as he is forced to seek and receive the approval of Hezbollah. In practice, and despite the fact that the law and the Syrians stand beside him, it is impossible to imagine a situation in which Lahoud would act in opposition to the currently popular government, which has broad public support.

If Siniora's proposal is accepted by the UN Security Council, the first test of loyalty will take place in coming days when reserve soldiers in the Lebanese Army are called up to take positions in the South. The quality of the force enlisted to control South Lebanon will become apparent when the names of battalions, soldiers, and officers are revealed. As long as the army operates under the broad approval of factions including Hezbollah, the army will not be forced to oppose Hezbollah. Moreover, at this stage, no demand has been made that the army relieve Hezbollah of its weapons.