As we mourn the loss of Maronite Patriarch Emeritus Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, we are reminded of his legacy of being a courageous defender of the sovereignty of Lebanon in the face of Syrian occupation. It is striking that he passed at a moment when tensions between Iran and the United States are running high and threaten to drag Lebanon into an unwanted conflict.
Lebanon is a unique experiment in religious pluralism with religious freedom, freedom of the press, and a rich Christian history. Entangling foreign influence jeopardizes Lebanon’s sovereignty and causes instability, which could wreck Lebanon’s multiconfessional society. The only institution with the strength to defend Lebanese sovereignty is the Lebanese Armed Forces. U.S. support for the LAF is crucial to the role they play in providing stability and displacing other armed groups within Lebanon. With Congress in the throes of appropriation season, now is the time to consider what more we can do to strengthen the LAF as part of U.S. policy to counter destabilizing foreign influence and maintaining religious pluralism in Lebanon.
Lebanon, historically the heart of Christianity in the Middle East, is the last safe haven for Christians in the region. The current Lebanese political system, where Christians hold the presidency and half of the Parliament, is the only one in the Middle East where all religious sects share a delicate balance of political power. Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, is positioning itself to force a realignment of power, by which Christians would lose their 50% share. If such a scenario were to be realized, it would result in a mass exodus of Christians from Lebanon.
Given Iran’s growing presence in Syria and Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq through proxy militias in Christian areas, Lebanon would become the final domino to fall in Iran’s Shia Crescent, granting it access to the Mediterranean and Israel’s border. Should Iran draw Lebanon into a regional conflict or indirectly take control of the government, the Christian community would suffer irreversible and fatal consequences.
Thankfully, Lebanon is not yet a proxy state of Iran, and Hezbollah is far from controlling the government, only holding one major ministry: the Ministry of Health. Lebanon’s legitimate security institution, the LAF, can be used to weaken Hezbollah from within, by depriving the terrorist organization of its mandate to protect the southern border and by unquestionably displacing Hezbollah in domestic security. For over 10 years, the U.S. has invested in making the LAF a professional fighting force. Now, U.S. security assistance should focus on giving the LAF the distinct and prohibitive competitive advantage over Hezbollah. This is the best way to declaw Hezbollah from within and to avoid a conflict, internal or external, that would cause unspeakable human suffering on all sides.
In addition, the LAF has to maintain and increase its vigilance against other destabilizing armed threats, such as the many Palestinian armed factions and the infiltration of ISIS through the enormous 1.5 million displaced Syrians in Lebanon, creating a fertile ground for terrorist groups. The examples of terrorists sprouting from camps are numerous, such as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, and consistently increasing. Lebanon must also secure its porous border with Syria, over which fighters and weapons cross almost unchecked.
This is where Congress must act. In 2018, Iran outspent the U.S. roughly 3 to 1, giving Hezbollah $700 million in support while the U.S. only provided the LAF with $222 million. For example, Iran has given Hezbollah tanks while the U.S. provided the LAF with anti-tank weapons. Hezbollah is estimated to have a fighting force up to half the strength of the LAF. Consider there being a nonstate actor within the U.S. that was designated a terrorist organization, yet had a force up to half as large as the U.S. Army. The very idea is staggering, but this is Lebanon’s reality.
There are two areas in which the U.S. can ensure the LAF gains the necessary competitive advantage to provide domestic security. The first is increasing its air superiority. Through U.S. support, the LAF is developing an air force that allows them to respond rapidly, but they desperately need more helicopters and planes, all of which can come from retired U.S. equipment. Secondly, Lebanon needs a bolstered maritime force to patrol its coastline and deal with smuggling and other illicit activity. Such investments by the U.S. would hardly put a dent in our foreign aid budget but would save another country from falling under the sway of Iran and the burden of terrorists.
The LAF have proven themselves to be a capable fighting force when properly supported, as they displayed to the world when they decisively defeated ISIS on the border with Syria. Central Command Commander Joseph Votel has said that “the Lebanese Armed Forces are second to none. Their skills, professionalism, dedication to duty, and commitment to defend their country are unsurpassed.” And former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, “we have the legitimate state security organization in the Lebanese armed forces,” adding, “we have a … U.S. military partnership with them, and they are helping to keep the stable situation stable right now.”
Much has been made of the notion that the LAF and Hezbollah have collaborated and that U.S. equipment has ended up in the hands of a terrorist organization. However, the LAF has received the highest possible End User Monitoring rating, which tracks every piece of U.S. military equipment given to allies. Equipment, like the M113 Bradleys Hezbollah flaunted in their military parade, were proved not to have come from the LAF. Such rumors are pushed by Hezbollah, which stands to gain the most should Congress flinch at supporting the LAF.
In an interview during his recent visit to Lebanon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rightly stated that Iran wants to control the state of Lebanon to gain access to the Mediterranean. Then, he added that “the people of Lebanon deserve better than that, they want something different from that, and America is prepared to help.” By ensuring the LAF has the strength and tools to contain, displace, and disarm Hezbollah, and defend against existing and potential terrorist groups, America will achieve a number of national security objectives, including pushing back on Iranian and Arab influence, undermining Hezbollah, and keeping Lebanon as the religious safe haven that it currently is.
Toufic Baaklini is president and chairman of the board at In Defense of Christians. Peter Burns is government relations and policy director at In Defense of Christians.