Early this week, Lebanon’s top army commander, Joseph Aoun, threatened to “confront any Israeli aggression, whatever that costs.” Aoun was referring to Lebanon’s contrived maritime and land border disputes with Israel. Aoun further noted that the Lebanese Armed Forces “would not spare any method” in challenging Israel. With those words, Aoun signed the LAF’s death warrant. The dispute, which was provoked by Hezbollah and Iran, centers on a triangular area of sea of around 330 square miles that falls squarely within Israel’s maritime borders. Hezbollah also opposes the construction of a land barrier that Israel is building on its side of the border to prevent infiltration.
Aoun’s bellicose tone echoes that of Hezbollah, which has been offering similar rhetoric in recent weeks with increasing shrill and frequency. Hezbollah, which operates as Iran’s mercenary army, has in recent years slowly subsumed Lebanese state institutions, including Lebanon’s army, like a cancerous, flesh-eating malignancy.
In 2008, the Lebanese government tried to reassert control by assuming some measure of authority over Beirut International Airport and by preventing Hezbollah from constructing its own separate telecommunication infrastructure. Hezbollah thwarted these efforts in May 2008 when its forces seized key strategic sites and government media institutions. The clashes, though sharp and violent, were brief but underscored the point that in Lebanon, it is Iran through its proxy Hezbollah that pulls the strings. The impotent Lebanese Army, itself a fractured mosaic of Shia, Sunni, Christians and Druse, stood by helplessly and did not interfere.
Israel doesn’t have much to fear from the ineffectual Lebanese Army. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the LAF remained neutral, and in at least one instance, maintained courteous exchanges with advancing Israeli forces, even serving them tea. But Aoun’s comment struck an ominous tone for other reasons. By parroting Hezbollah talking points, Aoun is now broadcasting to the world that he is putting the Lebanese Army at Hezbollah’s disposal.
Aoun merely confirmed what has been the de-facto case for the past several years. The LAF has done nothing to advance United Nations Security Council resolutions 1701 and 1559, which call for Hezbollah’s disarmament. In fact, the LAF has acted an auxiliary force for Hezbollah, securing logistical routes for the terrorist group and participating in the shelling of Syrian rebel groups hostile to Hezbollah. There is also a body of credible evidence suggesting that Hezbollah has been pilfering LAF supplies and equipment with the LAF’s consent. Even elements of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) now regard the LAF as a hostile body which acts as an agent for Hezbollah. Prominent Lebanese writer Hanin Ghaddar, who for understandable reasons no longer resides in Lebanon, acknowledged the obvious when he insightfully noted that “Hezbollah used to be considered a state within the Lebanese state. Today, it is Lebanon that is a small state within the Hezbollah state.”
Israel has fully come to terms with the fact that the LAF and Hezbollah have become one and the same. Israeli security officials have repeatedly been sounding the alarm noting that the LAF is now an integral part of Hezbollah. Accordingly, Israeli military planners have modified their offensive doctrine to include the LAF as an active belligerent in any future conflict against Hezbollah.
Notwithstanding the obvious writing on the wall, the United States is still demonstrating signs of confusion and disarray when it comes to Lebanon. Despite the LAF’s demonstrable close cooperation with Hezbollah and Lebanon’s increasingly aggressive tone vis-à-vis Israel, the LAF remains the fifth largest recipient of U.S. military assistance. Stipulations attached to the military aid program have been routinely and openly contravened by the LAF.
Of equal significance is the fact that the U.S. State Department, headed by its ill-informed secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, continues to peddle the ridiculous notion that there’s some vestige of sovereignty left within the Lebanese government. On February 15, Tillerson met with Lebanese government officials where he was deliberately humiliated by his Lebanese hosts and compounded the humiliation by making a series of contradictory and banal statements concerning Hezbollah and the Lebanese government.
A day prior, while in Jordan, Tillerson appeared to lend some legitimacy to Hezbollah by stating that “We also have to acknowledge the reality that [Hezbollah] are part of the political process in Lebanon.” That statement drew sharp criticism and prompted the State Department to go into damage control mode, issuing vague and incoherent statements which only added to the confusion.
It appears that Tillerson has adopted a regurgitated form of the same gibberish touted by Barack Obama’s CIA director, John “Al-Quds” Brennan. Brennan absurdly believed that Hezbollah’s “political wing” was part of the framework of the Lebanese government and there were “moderate” elements of Hezbollah with whom the United States could negotiate. Obama was heavily influenced by this line of thinking and consequently, ignored the telltale signs of Lebanon’s demise as a sovereign nation. Others like analyst Tony Badran expressed the view that Obama, besotted by the notion of establishing détente with the Islamic Republic, deliberately pursued policies aimed at strengthening Iran’s position in Lebanon (and Syria).
It is clear that the United States must adopt a more robust policy against Hezbollah and there has been significant movement in that direction. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has revived the DEA’s Project Cassandra and Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury Department has slapped new sanctions on Hezbollah and Iran. But the State Department is still infested with the “The Swamp” mindset and has yet to come to terms with certain unwavering truths. The State Department must once and for all face the reality that Lebanon, as a sovereign independent nation, is no more. It has been wholly transformed into nothing more than a marionette with the strings being pulled by the Islamic Republic.
As for the LAF, this once proud independent institution sealed its fate when it decided to cast its lot with the fortunes of Hezbollah. In 2006, Israel pummeled Hezbollah, reducing large swaths of Hezbollah-controlled territory into cratered parking lots but largely ignored the LAF. In the coming war, the LAF will not be so fortunate.