After more than a month of protests targeting Lebanon’s sectarian postwar political order, pressure has increased on the Lebanese armed forces to maintain internal stability and civil peace. To that end, the military and its leadership have avoided engaging in major public statements or press appearances, preserving the institution’s neutrality and avoiding the politicization of the armed forces. However, both the protest movement and the sectarian political elites they oppose continue to struggle with deciphering the military’s intentions, priorities, and objectives.
The protest movement remains uncertain about the role of the military as protests enter their sixth week. Social media is littered with protestors’ comments that range from praise for the military’s efforts to uphold civil peace to acrimony over the absence or heavy-handedness of military personnel. Discussions with protest organizers often contrast the deployment in force of elite units to clear roadblocks, at times by force, and a far less aggressive posture by units when Hezbollah and Amal supporters recently destroyed the protestors’ encampments in Beirut’s central district.
In discussions, Lebanon’s sectarian political leaders show growing frustration with the military’s perceived inability or unwillingness to bring the protest movement to heel. Partisans of the predominantly Christian Lebanese Forces and Kataeb parties, which claim to support the protests, point to the vigorous lifting of roadblocks in the Metn district as proof that the military is not “on their side.” Protestors in the country’s predominantly Sunni north increasingly accuse the military of being “Aounists”—a reference to the officers promoted under President Michel Aoun when he was still commander of the armed forces. By contrast, there are persistent tensions between the leadership of the Free Patriotic Movement and the military, and the former are aghast at how the armed forces have sought to negotiate and mitigate road closures.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s principal Shi‘a factions, Hezbollah and Amal, are increasingly interpreting the actions of the Lebanese military as complicit with the pro-Western March 14 forces, going so far as to insinuate that the military and military intelligence are siding with the protest movement.
If the military is to counteract such accusations, it must address three challenges: first, it must proactively articulate strategic guidelines to clarify its intent; second, it must adopt modern best practices tied to strategic communication; and third, it must actively track and correct instances where individual military personnel or units act out of step with the guidelines set by headquarters.
For the military to clarify its strategic and tactical objectives is arguably the most critical challenge. Early on, the military tried to make plain its mission priorities: protecting the public and key government institutions and standing for and with the protestors. However, this did little to articulate for the public at large what those priorities meant in the real world. Discussions with Lebanese military officials indicate that the military’s strategic objective is simply to buy time and maintain civil peace long enough to allow for a suitable political settlement to be found to the country’s political crisis. Allowing protests in Beirut and Tripoli to go on unabated falls under those objectives. By contrast, lifting roadblocks are meant to be limited timebound tactical actions that seek to accommodate the demands of Lebanon’s caretaker government. Contrary to the assumptions of some in the protest movement and the political class, they are not a strategic effort to deal a death blow to one manifestation of the protest movement.
The next challenge is addressing the military’s inability thus far to communicate this nuance to the public. The military’s Orientation Directorate is tasked with public engagement, the posting of official bulletins, and keeping the public informed on non-sensitive military affairs. However, the directorate has largely failed to adapt quickly or decisively enough to the realities of this age of social networks, citizen journalism, and alternative and fake news. Like other militaries around the world, the Lebanese military will have to rapidly adapt its existing public diplomacy capabilities to proactively and persistently engage, educate, and react to the public at large.
In the longer term, this may mean establishing a new communications directorate (a “J-9” in military parlance). However, in the short term it can mean dusting off and expanding on the strategic communication lessons learned during the 2017 Fajr al-Jurud campaign against the Islamic State and tasking a timebound strategic communications cell until the military can adapt structurally.
If the military can address its intent and how to signal it, the next challenge will be to strictly ensure that all units adhere to that intent in practice. The military will have to pay close attention to how it deploys units with varying levels of experience with public order actions in support of stabilization operations, while also working to show the public that it is acting fairly and consistently across Lebanon. This means carefully calibrating how the military uses its regular and elite units at roadblocks and in places such as Beirut’s central district to reassure protesters and deter potential aggressive elements on either side of Lebanon’s sectarian political dividing lines.
No less important are the perceived actions of non-combat units such as the Directorate of Military Intelligence, which have regular and recurring contact with both protesters and political factions on the ground. Establishing and maintaining uniformity across the force in terms of actions and intent become even more important as telltale signs of fatigue, stress, and lapses of judgment become increasingly apparent after more than a month of protests.
On November 17, the army commander, General Joseph Aoun, publicly restated the military’s objectives and priorities, emphasizing both the protestors’ right to freedom of assembly and the tactical imperative of keeping major roads open. This first major public statement went in the right direction to try and educate the public about what the military was doing and why. Whether such public engagement was enough, or succeeded in communicating with a youth-driven protest movement, was debatable. However, the military must adapt accordingly. Be that as it may, the address communicated a fundamental belief that the Lebanese military was not, as one officer put it, a “hope killer.”
As the crisis persists and more Lebanese look to the armed forces for leadership, addressing intent, signaling it, and then ensuring it is uniform will be critical. And none of this can be accomplished by a military merely reacting to events. It must seize the initiative. The military must work to ensure it is not increasingly perceived as “the military of the regime,” as one officer put it. It must also strive to remain “the military of the nation.”
To that end, how the Lebanese military engages with and channels the demands of the protest movement as well as the needs of the country’s leading sectarian forces will determine whether it can stake out a position for itself allowing it to control the moral high ground.