Aram Nerguizian is senior advisor of the Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where his work focuses on the Lebanese security sector, long-term force transformation in the Levant, and efforts to develop national security institutions in post-conflict and divided societies. In anticipation of a conference convened by France on June 17 to support the Lebanese armed forces, which has suffered at a time of unprecedented financial and economic crisis in Lebanon, Diwan interviewed Nerguizian to get his perspective on what is at play, and where the armed forces are today.
Michael Young: What are the main objectives of the conference this week to support the Lebanese armed forces?
Aram Nerguizian: Unlike past multilateral engagements (Rome I and II) to support the development and professionalization of the Lebanese armed forces (LAF), the focus of the conference—organized in coordination with the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon—is centered on finding ways to bolster the cohesion, resilience, and stability of the LAF, and eventually of the Internal Security Forces as well, in the face of unprecedented fiscal and financial pressures on the Lebanese national defense budget.
This conference builds on high-level bilateral engagements between the LAF and the United States, namely the inaugural U.S.-Lebanon Defense Resourcing Conference in May 2021, as well as on meetings between the LAF and the United Kingdom in October 2020 and the LAF and France in May 2021, that were focused primarily on bolstering the cohesion and stability of the LAF.
The Paris conference is meant to prompt partner nations to think creatively about how to help the LAF through 2021, but also in ways that allow the command of the armed forces to focus on its missions—border security, counterterrorism, internal stability—as opposed to fighting a singular battle to maintain the LAF’s stability, with no real Lebanese government assistance.
MY: Can you describe the current pressures faced by the military?
AN: Lebanon’s continued decline in basic governance, the absence of any positive movement in terms of an economic course-correction, and the continued deterioration of the Lebanese pound have placed unprecedented stress on the LAF’s operational capabilities and severely curtailed the living and working conditions of personnel and their family networks and dependents.
According to LAF internal estimates, the devaluation of the pound over the 2019–2021 period has led to a 94.5 percent decrease in the budget for expenses tied to the procurement of essential equipment; an 88.6 percent decline in funding for operational maintenance; and an 87 percent reduction in the U.S. dollar equivalent value of personnel expenditures.
Lebanese defense spending on military personnel—which has been broadly stable between LL2,467 billion and LL2,501 billion over the 2018 to 2021 timeframe—is useful to illustrate the challenge. In 2019, the LAF spent the pound equivalent of $1.655 billion on personnel. The decline in the value of the pound in 2020 meant that wages and other benefits became the equivalent of $332.4 million, at an average rate of LL7,500 = $1.00. That decline has continued into 2021 with LAF personnel expenditures being worth $208.4 million based on preliminary assumptions of LL12,000 = $1.00.
While the overall cases of desertion remain relatively low, the LAF has seen increased instances of dereliction of duty, moonlighting by military personnel to augment a monthly salary that for many junior officers has gone from $2,000 to $200, and an increase in the number of incidents of personnel being absent without leave. Separately, the last three years have seen some of the largest attrition rates in the LAF in terms of personnel choosing to leave the force. Starting in 2019—and for the first time since 2007—the LAF saw more personnel leave the institution than join it. The LAF was reduced by 2,263 in 2019, 1,578 in 2020, and 580 as of the first quarter of 2021.
What matters is that the LAF is losing quality officers and noncommissioned officers, the gray matter and capabilities the institution has spent more than a decade and a half developing. If this continues and there are no means of retaining critical talent and capabilities, it signals the entropy and possible decline of what has become one of the Arab world’s most capable militaries. Such a decline could be a harbinger of the kinds of instability not seen since the last time Lebanon’s political elites gutted or set adrift the LAF, namely in the five years leading up to the 1975–1990 civil war.
MY: What kinds of aid should friendly nations be offering to the Lebanese military in terms of support?
AN: Some countries have easier procedures and laws governing the provision of direct financial support than others. Some countries, such as Egypt and Iraq, are better positioned to give in-kind aid in terms of food stocks, medical supplies, and fuel. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have the resources, but would have to realign their interests back to support for the LAF, an idea that has been cast aside for more than five years.
There is little doubt that the actor that will make the most critical difference is the United States. The U.S. has bumped up Lebanon’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) account by $15 million to $120 million for FY2021. This will take significant pressure off the LAF’s now nonexistent acquisition and maintenance budgets. The U.S. is also poised to provide some $59 million Section 1226 funding to the LAF. Section 1226 is a Defense Department funding authority that has enabled the U.S. government to reimburse key partner states—especially Lebanon and Jordan—for border security and counterterrorism operations. Section 1226 is unique as it is currently the only mechanism through which the U.S. government can directly transfer funds to a partner nation. Funds under FMF and other programs are held in the U.S. and debited by the U.S. government to pay for systems, training, and spare parts for partners.
It stands to reason that if the LAF is doing its part as a recipient of Section 1226 funding—as it did in 2017 against the so-called Islamic State, which led to a $48 million reimbursement in 2018—then the U.S. government would have an easier time justifying the deployment of such funds to support the LAF. Things the LAF can do to help in that case would include counter-smuggling efforts along the border with Syria, sustaining the counter-Islamic State effort, continuing to use good judgement in the use of force in internal stability operations, and engaging in good faith in tripartite maritime demarcation talks with Israel and the United Nations.
Meanwhile, countries such as the United Kingdom and France have far more limited discretionary funding available to support the LAF. However, where they—along with the U.S. and Egypt—can play a critical role is in framing to other potential partners such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates the strategic significance of preventing the further degradation of the LAF—a degradation that only benefits actors such as the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which would loom even larger in Lebanese national security politics.
MY: What are the U.S. priorities tied to the LAF and is there a concern that if these are not addressed, the deteriorating conditions might open the door to Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah?
AN: For Washington, Lebanon is a unique case of a fragile state in which a national military has improved almost at an inverse rate to the central government. The main takeaways from a U.S. perspective are that the U.S. is actively working with the LAF (not the Lebanese government, there is a distinction) to think creatively about how to help bridge the budget crisis through to 2022; that the U.S. government continues to see critical value in the LAF as a stabilizing actor that itself needs to remain stable; and the reality that if Washington is not an active partner in trying to preserve the LAF’s cohesion and integrity, there is a real risk that internal sectarian actors could really start to damage and coopt the LAF, or worse that countries such as Iran, Russia, or Syria could do so.
In absolute terms, the LAF has, does, and will continue to see itself as a U.S. and NATO-centric military working constantly to increase its interoperability with the U.S. and NATO. The last thing it needs is any type of relation with, or aid from, countries such as Russia, China, Iran, or Syria that may threaten that upward trajectory. The LAF has also actively pushed back against the Free Patriotic Movement of Gebran Bassil and Hezbollah when it comes to these parties’ efforts to influence its internal decisionmaking. So far, those efforts have been successful, albeit costly to the LAF’s leadership.
MY: What do you see as potential “wild cards” in assisting the LAF?
AN: The first wild card is assisting the LAF in ways that do not create an LAF “gilded class” relative to the rest of the Lebanese population. Popular support for the institution comes from the perception that the LAF draws its ranks from salt-of-the-earth communities across Lebanon, and that it is sharing in the suffering of the population. This means that donors and partners will need to think of other ways in parallel to support the wider mix of Lebanese who are watching from the sidelines. Failing to do so will risk eroding the Lebanese public’s faith in the LAF, and any erosion of such faith ultimately makes the institution’s job of preserving Lebanese stability and territorial integrity that much more difficult.
Second, the LAF will face an unprecedented challenge in showing transparency and accountability when it comes to the support of key donors and partners. The LAF’s command may find itself receiving everything from in-kind aid to transfers of hard foreign currency. The armed forces believe that U.S. support under Section 1226 will prove especially critical in getting the force through to 2022. All the more reason for the command to be proactively public in showcasing what aid it is getting, and when it receives a major cash transfer explaining how it intends to responsibly allocate those funds.
Third, the LAF runs the risk of becoming even more dependent on foreign aid than it already is. Critically, plans to aid the LAF in 2021—as in the case of U.S. Section 1226 funds—are likely to be a one-time arrangement, and that kind of critical aid might not be around in future fiscal cycles. Ultimately, the LAF and the Lebanese will need to focus on the chronic defunding of the LAF’s acquisition and procurement budget, and the need to right-size current spending on personnel. This may lead to a larger debate about what kind of LAF Lebanon should be able to support in terms of scale and scope, but getting to sustainable Lebanese defense economics will be critical if the LAF’s current dependence on foreign aid is to be kept in check.
The fourth key challenge will be how the LAF manages and maintains its ties to its Western partners. There is growing concern among Western donors that the LAF’s command might lapse in appointing the right people in positions that will be critical to maintaining the institution’s positive momentum. There are also concerns with what the implications might be of appointing officers with sympathetic views of Hezbollah, Russia, China, or Iran. The timing here is key as the LAF recently received ammunition from Russia and some 100 light duty vehicles from China. Any potential drift would hurt the LAF’s ties to the United States, its most critical partner , and embolden Lebanon-skeptics in the U.S.