Basem Shabb is a member of Lebanon’s parliament, where he sits on the National Defense, Interior and Municipalities Committee. Shabb, who first entered parliament in 2005, holds the Protestant seat in Beirut’s 3rd District and was elected on the list of Saad al-Hariri. A close observer of defense issues, he also follows the debate in Washington, D.C. over Lebanon and U.S. military assistance to the country. Diwan sat with Shabb in early February to get his views on the Lebanese armed forces, the way they are perceived by Hezbollah, and cooperation between the armed forces and the United States.
Michael Young: There have been growing calls in the United States to cut funding to the Lebanese army. Why?
Basem Shabb: There has always been a group of skeptics in Washington who are opposed to assisting the Lebanese armed forces. Their premise rests on what they say is collusion between the Lebanese state and Hezbollah, as well as statements by high-ranking Lebanese officials describing Hezbollah as a legitimate player and as integral to the defense policy of Lebanon. The previous Obama administration pursued a policy of detente with Iran, which counterbalanced the tendency in Congress to curtail aid to the armed forces. Now that confronting Iran is a priority for the Trump administration, this sentiment has gained momentum as evidenced by the 2018 White House budget proposal that eliminated military financing for Lebanon, before the Pentagon raised it to $85 million.
MY: Do you feel that a cut in U.S. military assistance to Lebanon would have any negative impact on Hezbollah?
BS: No. Hezbollah is fully aware that the ascendency of the Lebanese armed forces would eventually erode the party’s military as well as political leverage. The sweeping victory of the armed forces against the Islamic State last year was a clear demonstration of precise firepower and advanced electronic surveillance, which was much superior to that of Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah insisted on claiming cooperation with the Lebanese armed forces to discredit the military with its main sponsor, the United States. Moreover, whereas the military enjoys widespread support among Lebanese, Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has cemented its image as a deeply sectarian force. Hezbollah, and Iran for that matter, could not hope for better than a cut in U.S. aid to the military.
Lebanon’s military during the years of Syrian influence over Lebanon in the 1990s was deliberately left poorly equipped and trained. Without U.S. support, the armed forces would quickly degenerate to what they were in those years. The current difficulties in maintenance and a shortage of spare parts would become insurmountable. The central government has gained much leverage from a strong military. Border regiments now cover much of the Lebanese-Syrian border, to the dismay of Hezbollah. Given the internal sectarian dynamics in Lebanon, an outright confrontation with Hezbollah is inconceivable, but there are strong indications that the pendulum is slowly swinging in the direction of the Lebanese government, in no small way because of the armed forces. Cutting aid to the Lebanese military would only play into the hands of Hezbollah.
MY: Saudi Arabia suspended funding to the Lebanese army a few years ago. Might this serve as an example of what a U.S. funding cut might achieve, and if so what would it show?
BS: The Saudi decision to suspend aid to the armed forces was regrettable. The political consequences for Saudi Arabia far outweighed the military consequences for the Lebanese armed forces. The main result of such a policy was diminishing Saudi influence in Lebanon. Suspending aid to the armed forces, a principal venue for political influence, essentially left Saudi Arabia with no place at the Lebanese table.
Apart from a major boost that had been planned for the navy, the consequences of the Saudi decision for the Lebanese armed forces were not so grave, given the availability of similar weapon systems from the U.S. This includes the M109 self-propelled howitzer and the Bradley infantry combat vehicle. Indeed, one could argue that an infusion of new equipment, in small numbers, financed by Saudi Arabia would have had a negative impact due to the budgetary constraints of the Lebanese military, as this equipment would have been very costly to maintain.
Where U.S. support differs markedly from Saudi Arabia’s is in officer education and the training of elite units of the Lebanese armed forces. Should these programs be terminated, the impact on the abilities of the military would be much greater than the denial of equipment. The current state of the military is a consequence of a concerted U.S. effort to equip and train it for over a decade.
MY: Can the Lebanese military do more to reassure U.S. funders? If so, what?
BS: There is no question that Lebanon must do more to preserve this symbiotic relationship with the United States. A convincing counter-narrative to calls for cutting U.S. aid is critical as U.S.-Iranian tensions are running high. The prevailing sense of entitlement in some Lebanese civilian and military circles is worrisome. While this may have been made easier during the previous Obama administration, when Lebanon was a partner of the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State and was hosting over a million Syrian refugees, the current administration is more concerned with confronting Iranian influence.
Statements by the Lebanese president regarding Hezbollah as a legitimate force, as well as inflammatory statements by other Lebanese officials regarding the United States, did not go unnoticed by high-ranking U.S. officials and members of Congress. This sense of entitlement has negated the need for lobbying the administration and Congress. High-ranking visits by U.S. military officials have inadvertently nurtured this sentiment of complacency. The recent sentencing by the Military Tribunal of Hanin Ghaddar of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, probably motivated by local political concerns, provoked serious negative repercussions for the Lebanese armed forces. U.S. aid can no longer be taken for granted given the current mood in Washington. The Lebanese government as well as the military must be mindful of this new reality.
MY: If the army is targeted, so too, effectively, is the Lebanese state. What are the risks in this?
BS: There is no doubt that weakening the armed forces would greatly hamper the ability of the Lebanese government to exercise authority and monitor its borders. Stability in the country rests on this authority, which represents all sects and factions. An imbalance favoring a sectarian force such as Hezbollah would have dire implications, especially economic implications, as Lebanon would become a pariah state. Other matters that could possibly follow are decreased funding by the U.S. for UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, and Syrian refugees. Financial sanctions against Hezbollah could further weaken the Lebanese economy by eroding vital links to the global financial system. In fact, such a move could make an economic and political meltdown more likely.