Lebanon: A Military in Politics in a Divided Society
Summary and Keywords
Since Lebanon’s independence in the mid-1940s, its military—the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)—has played a pivotal role in the country’s politics. The political role of the LAF in Lebanon might seem surprising since the Lebanese state did not militarize, and its political leaders have continuously managed to keep their military relatively weak and small. Indeed, in this respect Lebanon has been markedly different from its close neighbors (Syria and Israel), but also from several other Middle Eastern states (especially Egypt and Iraq), where the military, which was large and powerful, was continuously involved in politics. Additionally, both Lebanon and the LAF have persistently striven to distance themselves from regional conflicts since 1949, particularly in relation to the Palestinian issue, albeit not always successfully. Still, and despite these ostensibly unfavorable factors for the military’s involvement in politics in Lebanon, the LAF has played an important political role in the state since its independence. This role, which has been marked by elements of continuity and change over the years, included mediation and arbitration between rival political factions (in 1945–1958, 2008, 2011, and 2019); attempts to dominate the political system (in 1958–1970 and 1988–1990); intervention in the Lebanese civil war (in 1975–1976 and 1982–1984); attempts to regain its balancing role in politics (in 1979–1982 and 1984–1988); and facilitating the state’s postwar reconstruction (since 1991). The political role of the military in Lebanon can be explained by several factors. First, the weakness of Lebanon’s political system and its inability to resolve crises between its members. Second, Lebanon’s divided society and its members’ general distrust towards its civilian politicians. Third, the basic characteristics of Lebanon’s military, which, in most periods, enjoyed broad public support that cuts across the lines of community, region, and family, and found appeal among domestic and external audiences, which, in their turn, acquiesced to its political role in the state.
At first glance, the political role played by Lebanon’s military—the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)—since the state’s independence in the mid-1940s may seem surprising: unlike Lebanon’s close neighbors (Syria and Israel), but also several other Middle Eastern states (e.g., Egypt and Iraq), which built large and powerful militaries that have been continuously involved in politics, the Lebanese state has not militarized (though non-state actors sometimes acquired considerable military capacities), and its political leaders have managed to keep their military relatively weak and small. Additionally, since the First Arab–Israeli War in 1948–1949, both Lebanon and the LAF have continuously sought to distance themselves from regional conflicts, especially in connection with the Palestinian issue, albeit not always successfully.
The goal of this article is to address the puzzle of the LAF’s political role despite these ostensibly “unfavorable” factors. First, it discusses the political role of the LAF since Lebanon’s independence, highlighting elements of continuity and change in this role over the years. It then focuses on some of the main factors that can account for the military’s political role in Lebanon, which, it posits, have to do with three main factors: the Lebanese political system, Lebanon’s divided society, and the particular characteristics of the LAF itself and how it managed to project its image to both domestic and external audiences which, in their turn, have acquiesced to its political role.
Lebanon’s Political System, Security Sector, and the LAF
In the period 1943–1975, that is, from Lebanon’s independence from France until the eruption of the civil war in Lebanon, the country’s political system was characterized by power sharing between its six major communities, which include both Christians (Maronites, Orthodox, Catholics) and Muslims (Sunnis, Shiʿi, and Druze).1 This political settlement, known as the National Pact, stipulated a ratio of six to five between Christians and Muslims in the Lebanese cabinet and in parliament (in the Ta’if Agreement of 1989, this was changed to Christian–Muslim parity). It also assigned the state’s three highest posts to the country’s largest communities (the president to the Maronites, the prime minister to the Sunnis, and the speaker of parliament to the Shiʿi). Other communities also received their share in political appointments (Barak, 2002; El-Khazen, 2000; Hanf, 1993; Hudson, 1968).
Lebanon’s security sector is composed of several agencies, but the largest and most important is its military—the Lebanese Armed Forces. Under French rule in Lebanon and Syria (1920–1945), local military units (known as the Troupes Spéciales) were formed by the colonial power, and their main task was to assist the French army in exerting control over these territories (Bou-Nacklie, 1993).2 In this period, most of the Lebanese members of these military units were Christians, and especially Maronites, with many hailing from Mount Lebanon and some belonging to notable families (for details, see Barak, 2006, 2009). However, this composition changed in later years when more officers and soldiers from Lebanon’s peripheral areas (North Lebanon, South Lebanon, and the Biqa’) and Beirut joined the military’s ranks. While some of these recruits, especially from the periphery, did so for utilitarian reasons (salary, pension, and prestige), others joined because they identified with the Lebanese state. Since recruitment to the LAF is voluntary, moreover, the state had a considerable impact on this process, thereby helping shape the inter-communal balance within the LAF (Barak, 2006, 2009; Mouawad & Baumann, 2017).
The main task of the LAF, established on August 1, 1945, has been to maintain law and order throughout Lebanon’s territory, and in the decades that followed it remained a small and weak compared with most of its Middle Eastern counterparts. There were several reasons for this state of affairs. First, Lebanon’s socioeconomic elite did not wish to create a powerful military that might be in a position to suppress it. Second, a small and weak Lebanese military was seen as a guarantee that the state would not become embroiled in regional conflicts. Finally, Lebanese leaders, especially Christians, were apprehensive that enlarging the military by introducing a compulsory draft in Lebanon would upset the inter-communal balance in the LAF, which, at least initially, tilted towards the Christians. Indeed, although in theory Lebanon’s power-sharing settlement also applied to its security sector, including the LAF and the other security agencies (and also to its bureaucracy), this principle was not always observed (Barak, 2006, 2009).
Despite the power-sharing settlement between its political leaders, Lebanon has witnessed a number of major political crises from its independence until the present. Although each of these crises had its particular domestic and sometimes also external context, nearly all of them involved Lebanon’s military, the LAF, in one way or another. The next section discusses these crises and the political role played by the LAF during their course, highlighting elements of continuity and change in the military’s political role.
The Political Role of the LAF: Continuity and Change
From Mediator to Balancer
During the 1950s, several political crises threatened the stability of the nascent Lebanese state. The first crisis took place in 1952 between President Bechara el-Khoury (Maronite) and his political opponents after the president, who in 1949 had managed to extend his term in defiance of the Lebanese Constitution, which forbids the renewal of the president’s six-year term, attempted to dominate the Lebanese political system. During the political crisis, the LAF refused to suppress the opposition to President Khoury, and the LAF’s commander, General Fouad Chehab (Maronite), even agreed to form a caretaker cabinet, thereby helping resolve the crisis (Barak, 2009; Zisser, 2000).
However, it was during the political crisis in 1958, between President Khoury’s successor, Camille Chamoun, and his political rivals (Meo, 1965; Qubain, 1961), that Lebanon’s military proved its stabilizing role. President Chamoun, who, like his predecessor, sought to extend his term in office and dominate the political system, encountered fierce resistance by his political rivals, with both sides resorting to violence and blaming the other side for seeking external support, be it from the West and the conservative Arab regimes (President Chamoun) or from Egypt’s pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdul Nasser (the opposition). However, contrary to President Chamoun’s expectations, the LAF, again under the leadership of General Chehab, refrained from employing its troops against the opposition, and engaged mainly in law and order operations that were limited in scope. As in 1952, this role on the part of the LAF prevented Lebanon’s president from crushing his opponents. When Chamoun realized that the LAF would not intervene in the crisis, and after U.S. Marines landed in Lebanon but refrained from siding with the Lebanese president, Chamoun decided to give up his reelection plans (Barak, 2009; Barak & Miodownik, 2019).
Some accounts of the LAF’s role in 1958 focus on the personality of its chief, General Chehab, his social status (he was the scion of a traditional family of notables from Mount Lebanon), and the French legacy of civil–military relations, which accorded much leeway for the military and its leadership vis-à-vis the political leaders. However, no less important in this period were the particular characteristics of the LAF. Thus, for example, over 60% of the LAF’s officers were Christians, and members of these communities dominated its combat and intelligence units. In contrast, the opposition’s armed supporters were, by and large, Muslims, mostly Sunnis and Druze (Barak, 2009). The LAF leadership thus concluded that if the military were to act against the opposition forces, Lebanon’s Muslims, many of whom identified with the opposition, would consider this a major breach of the power-sharing settlement and regard the LAF itself as illegitimate.
One of the consequences of the balancing role played by the LAF in the 1958 crisis in Lebanon was General Chehab’s election as president in place of Chamoun (Barak & Miodownik, 2019). As will be shown, this was not the last time a commander of the LAF was elected president as part of the solution to a major political crisis in Lebanon.
Attempting to Dominate Politics
Immediately after becoming president, General Chehab acknowledged that his election to this post was due to the inability of the Lebanese to agree on another candidate (Barak, 2009). However, it was not long before the new president, assisted by an informal “security network” composed of military and civilian actors, tried to dominate Lebanese politics (Barak, 2018). In addition to President Chehab and his close associates, this security network included military officers, mostly from the LAF’s intelligence branch (the Deuxième Bureau); civilian politicians, including several parliament members; and journalists. Importantly, this security network was not clandestine in nature: it was part of a broader Chehabist current (al-Nahj) that, according to its proponents, sought to modernize the Lebanese state by attempting to bypass its traditional leaders (za’im, pl. zu’ama’), who were deemed responsible for all of Lebanon’s political, social, and economic ills (Barak, 2018).
The problem, however, was that Lebanon’s security network resorted to unlawful pressure, intimidation, and electoral fraud against the zu’ama’, which antagonized the latter. This resulted in a backlash against members of the security network and, ultimately, against the LAF itself. Consequently, during the presidency of Suleiman Frangieh (1970–1976), a traditional leader (za’im) from North Lebanon, the security network in Lebanon was effectively dismantled, and some of its members, including senior LAF officers, were put on trial, though most received light sentences. These measures weakened the LAF, depriving Lebanon of one of its most important stabilizing elements (Barak, 2018).
Although in the period 1958–1975 the security sector in Lebanon, including the LAF, was mostly under the influence of Maronite officials (the president, the commander of the LAF, and the head of its intelligence branch), leaders representing other Lebanese communities also played a role in the area of security. Examples include the Sunni prime minister (who often served also as minister of the interior), the (mostly) Druze minister of defense, the Druze LAF’s chief of staff (appointed since 1958), and the Sunni director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF), which includes the police and the gendarmerie.
As to the LAF’s composition, it became more representative of Lebanon’s divided society. In the period 1945–1958, 65.5% of the army’s officers were Christians, with Maronites accounting for 43.8%. However, after the 1958 crisis, the ratio of Christians to Muslims changed to 55% and 45%, respectively. This ratio was identical to the Christian–Muslim ratio of six to five established in 1943. In addition, Maronites dropped to 34.8% of the LAF’s officers and some Muslim officers were appointed to key military posts. Last but not least, in this period Lebanon’s security sector—chiefly the LAF—tried to promote a national (that is, supra-communal) identity (Barak, 2006, 2009).
Intervention and Paralysis
The civil war that broke out in Lebanon in 1975, which lingered on for over a decade and a half, inflicted unprecedented casualties and material damage on the state and led to large-scale internal displacement and emigration (Barakat, 1988; Hanf, 1993; Khalaf, 1987, 2002; Khalidi, 1979; Picard, 1996; Salibi, 1976).
During the conflict, Lebanon’s political system and its security sector—including the LAF—were paralyzed for long periods of time, and some observers predicted their total disintegration. However, several peacemaking initiatives were launched in the course of the conflict, often with outside mediation, and these finally succeeded in 1989, when leaders representing Lebanon’s various communities reached the Ta’if Agreement. The new political settlement, which introduced important revisions in the National Pact, facilitated the end of the Lebanese conflict a year later, paving the way for the state’s reconstruction. Although this process has been disrupted by domestic and external tensions, and sometimes even violence, the Lebanese conflict did not recommence and most parts of the country remained stable.
Similar to previous political crises in Lebanon, the conflict that erupted in 1975 stemmed, first and foremost, from domestic power struggles among its political leaders. In the period before the conflict, local opposition groups, which mostly included Muslim-dominated pan-Arab and Leftist factions, claimed that Lebanon’s power-sharing settlement had, in fact, become a tool for elite domination, and some opposition spokesmen claimed that the country’s Christian communities, and especially the Maronites, which, they claimed, were no longer the majority in Lebanon, benefited from the 1943 settlement more than the Muslim communities.
Mounting tensions in the Middle East, especially after the Israeli–Arab War of 1967 and the rise of the Palestinian armed factions (especially the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO), further exacerbated inter-communal and socioeconomic divisions within Lebanon. The conflation of these domestic and regional tensions came to a head in 1975 with the outbreak of the civil war, leading to the state’s “failure” (Barak, 2003) and to foreign intervention by other states (Syria, Israel, the United States, France, and others) and non-state actors (especially the PLO)—in the conflict (Hanf, 1993; Khalidi, 1979; Sela & Barak, 2014).
In 1975–1976, during the political crisis that led to the conflict, the LAF could not play a balancing role as it had in previous crises in Lebanon. This political incapacity stemmed from the steps taken by Lebanon’s political leaders in the period before the crisis, which helped undermine the LAF’s legitimacy.
First, in the period 1970–1976, President Frangieh appointed security officials who were loyal to him and to his Maronite supporters (especially ex-President Chamoun), but not to the opposition (e.g., Kamal Junblat, the main Druze leader, but also others). Second, despite the inter-communal lopsidedness of the LAF (it still had a Christian majority), Maronite leaders and their supporters had no qualms about mobilizing it against the opposition, and the LAF’s weakened leadership could not withstand their pressure. Third, in this period the LAF was seen as identifying more with the Christians, particularly the Maronites, in contrast to earlier periods when it was seen as a meeting place for all communities. Lastly, the LAF’s actions had become politically contested after some of its officers tried to dominate the Lebanese political system, and after the LAF failed to restrain the Palestinian armed factions in Lebanon on the one hand, and to prevent the Israeli military from launching raids into the state’s territory on the other hand. The role played by the LAF commander in the “Cairo Agreement” (1969), a failed attempt to formalize the Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon, also backfired. The result of these developments was twofold: first, many Christians, and especially Maronites, who viewed the LAF as ineffective began to organize their own militias. Second, Muslim leaders, who regarded the LAF as a “tool” of Christian hegemony, mobilized their supporters against it (Barak, 2009; Hanf, 1993; Salibi, 1976).
When the political crisis in Lebanon escalated in 1975–1976, the state’s top political leaders decided to deploy the LAF against the Muslim-dominated opposition forces. Such partisanship on the part of the LAF elicited unprecedented criticism from Muslim-dominated Leftist and pan-Arab factions, as did an attempt by President Frangieh to form a cabinet composed only of ISF and LAF officers. These actions led to the first revolt in the history of the LAF, which mainly attracted Muslim officers and soldiers, and to a first coup attempt by one of the army’s senior officers (interestingly, both officers were Sunnis). Still, full-scale defection from the LAF did not yet occur; most of its personnel did not join the opposing militias, which occasionally targeted the LAF, but instead went home to defend their towns and villages or waited for the political crisis to end. Moreover, some of these soldiers, who continued to receive their salaries from the LAF, rejoined it later, when efforts were began to reconstruct it (Barak, 2009). This attests to the LAF’s accommodating position towards defectors (this was true also in the 1958 crisis).
Preservation and Reconstruction Efforts
During the long and devastating conflict in Lebanon, the main challenge facing the leaders of the LAF was to prevent its total disintegration. In addition, when efforts were begun to reconstruct the Lebanese state and its institutions, including the military, in the late 1970s, political and military leaders in Lebanon sought to restore the ability of the LAF to act in a legitimate way. This goal was to be attained by increasing the representativeness of the LAF vis-à-vis Lebanon’s divided society; by promoting a national—that is, a supra-communal—identity for the LAF; and by deploying military units in various parts of the country with the pronounced goal of restoring law and order and winning popular support for the LAF and for the state.
However, these reforms faced considerable obstacles, mainly due to the resistance of some Lebanese politicians, who were suspicious of the LAF and its intentions, and of armed factions—including both local and foreign non-state actors (in this period, especially the PLO)—and the foreign armies that had taken over large swaths of the country. However, the reforms were important, and even critical, in preventing the total disintegration of the LAF—and the Lebanese state—throughout the conflict, and in facilitating their reemergence in its aftermath (Aoun, 1988; Barak, 2003, 2009, 2016; Taqi al-Din, 1998).
The major reforms that the LAF undertook in the late 1970s, which were designed to forestall the threat of disintegration, reconstruct it as a multi-communal institution, and increase its legitimacy, included the adoption of several power-sharing mechanisms in its high command and in the civilian bodies controlling it. Another important step was the attainment of Christian–Muslim parity in the LAF’s officer corps by recruiting more Muslim officers and retiring Christian officers, especially those with close connections to the Maronite-led militias.
Despite these significant reforms, however, the identity and actual operations of the LAF remained politically contested and lopsided in favor of the Christians. This was in large part due to the lack of parallel reforms in Lebanon’s political system and the pressures exerted on the LAF by political leaders and militia bosses (Barak, 2009). The legitimacy of the LAF reached its lowest ebb in the period 1982–1984. Encouraged by the support he received from the Reagan administration after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Lebanese President Amine Gemayel attempted to dominate the political system and sought to use the LAF to achieve this end. Thus, he suspended the inter-communal power sharing in the LAF command, though in terms of its composition the LAF remained communally balanced (McLaurin, 1991). In addition, the identity and operations of the LAF expressly favored the Maronites and their Sunni allies. This was mostly evident in the attempts made by the LAF to deploy its forces in Druze and Shiʿi areas, which alienated members of these communities (Barak, 2009; Karlin, 2018; McLaurin, 1991).
Muslim alienation towards President Gemayel and the LAF reached its apex in 1983–1984, when army units were ordered to deploy in the Druze-controlled Chouf Mountains and in Shiʿi-controlled South Beirut to carry out law and order operations. The two major Druze and Shiʿi militias, Walid Junblat’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, opposed these moves, which they saw as attempts to undermine their political and military power, and called upon the LAF’s Druze and Shiʿi soldiers to defect and join their brothers. As a result, some units of the LAF (especially its 4th Brigade) disintegrated, and others (its 6th Brigade) joined the militias (Barak, 2009).
A similar scenario of increasingly violent partisanship on the part of the LAF came in 1988, when, during another political crisis in Lebanon, the LAF’s commander, General Michel Aoun, was appointed as Lebanon’s prime minister by outgoing President Amine Gemayel. For General Aoun, this was an opportunity to “solve” Lebanon’s conundrum (Aoun, 1988) and, after he encountered Muslim and Syrian resistance to his moves, to “liberate” Lebanon from Syria’s “occupation.” To achieve his far-reaching goals, General Aoun unleashed the LAF units under his command against the Syrian forces in Lebanon and their local allies, and later fought a devastating war against the Lebanese Forces, the country’s major Maronite-led militia. These political–military ventures put a final nail in the coffin of the LAF’s legitimacy and fueled its division into two parts, for the first time since the outbreak of the conflict (Barak, 2009; Laurent, 1991; McLaurin, 1991).
An Army Revived
In the 1990s, after the termination of the Lebanese conflict, important reforms were introduced to Lebanon’s political system in accordance with the Ta’if Agreement. The distribution of power between Lebanon’s major political officials—the Maronite president, the Sunni prime minister, and the Shiʿi speaker of parliament—was made more balanced, and since the prime minister and speaker of parliament were considerably strengthened at the president’s expense, this guaranteed a multi-communal Troika responsible for managing the state’s affairs. In view of repeated attempts by Lebanese presidents to dominate the political system, this reform was significant. In addition, Lebanon’s six largest communities were assured representation in the cabinet (a seventh major community, the Armenians, were also represented there), and the proportion of Christians to Muslims in parliament, fixed by the 1943 pact at a six to five ratio, was changed to Muslim–Christian parity, with Lebanon’s Alawites also receiving a share (Di Mauro, 2008).
Parallel to these political reforms, Lebanon’s security sector was also overhauled. The LAF was rebuilt on the basis of a new inter-communal consensus, and its units, which became largely homogeneous during the conflict and forged informal links with specific communities and regions in Lebanon, were restructured on a multi-communal basis. In addition, the LAF’s officer corps, which in the past had a Christian majority, became more inter-communally balanced, with Muslim officers gaining a slight majority (51.9%). Another significant step was the restoration of power sharing in the LAF command and in the controlling civilian bodies. In this period, the LAF also boasted about its unifying national—that is, multi-communal—identity (Barak, 2009, 2017; Gaub, 2010; Nerguizian, 2009). It is noteworthy that in this period, reforms were also introduced to Lebanon’s other security services, which were headed by members of different communities.3
The reforms introduced to the LAF during the postwar era, parallel to the political reforms in this period, made it more representative of Lebanon’s divided society. In addition, the LAF’s popular legitimacy was significantly enhanced, and it received much-needed support from foreign actors including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the UN forces in Lebanon. This, as well as the Syrian backing that the LAF enjoyed in this period (see “Dangerous Liaisons” below), enabled it to effectively curb attempts by all actors, local and foreign, to destabilize the state.
The popular legitimacy it enjoyed in the postwar era enabled the LAF to play a balancing role in domestic crises between members and groups from different communities, although it found itself powerless to intervene and force a political solution. The most telling example is the continuing tension between Lebanon’s two rival political factions, the March 8 and March 14 blocs, which were formed in 2005 in the wake of the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, which was blamed on Syria and its allies (especially Hizbullah but possibly also Iran). Indeed, during the violent clashes between these factions in Beirut in 2008, as well as on other occasions, LAF units inserted themselves between supporters of the two political blocs, but without using force against either of them, in order to avoid politicizing the army (Barak, 2009).
Later, in the wake of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime in Syria in 2011, when tensions within Lebanon, and particularly in Tripoli, where members of the Sunni and Alawite communities live side by side, mounted, the LAF deployed in the city and attempted to reduce the tensions but without using massive force against the rival parties. This was the case also in the massive demonstrations in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon in the fall of 2019.
Another problem, which called the effectiveness of the LAF into question, was the armed intrusions of Syrian rebels and members of radical Islamic factions from Syria into Lebanon’s territory, which led to casualties among Lebanese civilians and security personnel. Consequently, the LAF beefed up its presence along the Lebanese–Syrian border and carried out military operations against hostile armed groups.
In short, in the postwar era the LAF managed to regain its legitimacy on account of the reforms introduced to its structure and identity and to the controlling civilian bodies. However, the leaders of the LAF felt constrained in exercising their coercive power in situations that were liable to undermine the LAF’s neutral stance. This, in some ways, has compromised the effectiveness of the LAF as an instrument of law and order. However, the fact that the LAF continues to be perceived as a national—that is, a multi-communal—security agency that is owned by all of Lebanon’s communities and favoring none, in itself, has enabled it to play a balancing role in political crises, thereby contributing to the durability of civil peace and amity in the state on the one hand, and preventing defection and fragmentation of its units on the other hand.
In the section “An Army Revived” we saw how the LAF was successfully resuscitated in the postwar era and how its recovered legitimacy allowed it to play a balancing role in Lebanon’s turbulent political system, albeit with certain constraints. The picture would not be complete, however, without noting two major issues, or problems, facing the LAF in this period—neither of which is unrelated to political developments in postwar Lebanon: first, its relationship with neighboring Syria; and second, its relationship with Hizbullah, the Shiʿi party-militia, Lebanon’s only remaining armed group after the end of the conflict.
In the early years after the termination of the conflict in Lebanon, Syria played a critical role in the reconstruction of the state and its security sector, including the LAF. In addition, in the period 1990–2005, Syrian troops were stationed in Lebanon’s territory and Damascus exercised considerable leverage over policy-making in Beirut. It was during this period that a joint Lebanese–Syrian “deep state” emerged in Lebanon (Barak, 2018). Indeed, one author points to the “renewed military involvement in Lebanese politics” during the postwar period, especially after the election of a former commander of the LAF, General Emile Lahoud (Maronite), as president in 1998 (his term was extended in 2004), and the LAF’s “unprecedented intrusion” into the work of the Lebanese judiciary. A Lebanese politician, quoted by the same author, adds that the LAF created a “shadow power” that threatened the civilian authority in Lebanon, and that its proliferating security agencies were employed to curtail political dissent (El-Husseini, 2012, pp. 133–134; see also Leenders, 2012).
Unlike the security network that emerged in Lebanon in the wake of the 1958 crisis (see the section “Attempting to Dominate Politics”), which operated openly, the Syrian–Lebanese deep state in Lebanon (1990–2005) was clandestine. Prime Minister Fouad Saniora (Sunni), a supporter of the late prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri (Sunni) and a major opponent of the deep state, later testified that it consisted of “a number of individuals and tools that enjoyed close ties with the Syrian security apparatus” and that it abused its power and “hindered the path of justice” (quoted in Barak, 2018). Although Saniora himself did not explicitly blame the Syrian–Lebanese deep state for Hariri’s assassination in 2005, he did mention that its members tampered with the crime scene and targeted those who were close to the slain leader, and “even went so far as to fabricate accusations against individuals” (Barak, 2018). At any rate, in the wake of Hariri’s assassination, which exposed some of its members’ activities, and following Syria’s hasty withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005 and the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, it seems that this Lebanese–Syrian deep state weakened considerably.
The second problem facing the LAF in this period, which is related to the first, was the ties and connections forged in the postwar era between some Lebanese security officials, including from the LAF, on the one hand, and members of Hizbullah, the Shiʿi party-militia, on the other hand (Hazbun, 2016; Mouawad & Baumann, 2017).
Hizbullah is the only Lebanese armed group that was not disbanded after the end of the conflict in 1990, and two years later, when Lebanon’s first postwar parliamentary elections were held, it decided to participate and joined the Lebanese parliament. In subsequent years, it also entered the Lebanese cabinet, where it sought to achieve veto power that would preclude its disbandment by the state.
Publicly, Hizbullah’s spokesmen presented it not as a militia, that is, an essentially illegitimate armed group, but rather as a political movement that engages in “resistance” to Israel’s “aggression” against Lebanon, that is, a legitimate actor that performs a national duty that the Lebanese state and its institutions—chiefly the LAF—have been unable to carry out independently (Barak, 2017; Hazbun, 2016; Norton, 2007).
The popular support enjoyed by Hizbullah in Lebanon, especially among members of its Shiʿi community (which is considered to be Lebanon’s largest community), as well as the backing it enjoyed from neighboring Syria and Iran (though neither of these two states came to its aid during the war with Israel in 2006), compelled the LAF to come to terms with it. However, there were also other factors that affected the LAF’s relations with Hizbullah, especially the military’s disinterest in integrating the party-militia’s fighters in its own ranks so as to not disrupt the inter-communal balance within it.
In any case, claims such as that the LAF had become an “instrument” of Hizbullah, or that the LAF and the Shiʿi party-militia are “one and the same,” are highly problematic. Despite its “national” rhetoric, Hizbullah remains an armed non-state actor, an uneasy situation in a world dominated by states. Hizbullah is also exclusively Shiʿi, a factor that elicits fear and distrust among members of other Lebanese communities. The LAF, by contrast, is not only a state institution but also one that is multi-communal in its composition, commanding bodies, identity, and actions (Barak, 2017). In any case, and as noted by several observers (see, especially, Hazbun, 2016; Mouawad & Baumann, 2017), the relationship between Hizbullah and the LAF calls for a more nuanced and dynamic approach.
Conclusion: Explaining the Political Role of the Military in Lebanon
On October 31, 2016, General Michel Aoun, a former commander of the LAF, was elected as Lebanon’s president after 29 months in which the state’s highest public post was left vacant due to major disagreements among the country’s political leaders and their Middle Eastern allies. Aoun’s predecessor in the presidency, General Michel Suleiman (2008–2014), had also been a former commander of the LAF, and he, too, succeeded a former army chief, General Emile Lahoud (1998–2007), after a political deadlock that lasted six months. As in 1958, when General Fouad Chehab, the commander of the LAF, was elected president as part of the political settlement to the crisis that plagued the country, candidates for the state’s highest office were sought from among acting or retired commanders of its military—the LAF—especially (though not always) in periods of major political crisis.
What factors can account for the political role of the military in Lebanon and its different manifestations, but especially its balancing role during major political crises? The first factor that comes to mind is the perpetual weakness of Lebanon’s political system (the presidency, the cabinet, parliament, and the political parties) since its independence. Indeed, despite the power-sharing settlement between the leaders of Lebanon’s communities, adopted in 1943 and updated in 1989, politics in Lebanon has been plagued by crises, mainly fueled by attempts by leaders and groups to dominate the political system. During these crises, one of the only actors that has managed to maintain an independent stance is the LAF, and this enabled it, especially in 1958 but to an extent also in other periods, to play a balancing role. At times, the LAF also facilitated a political solution to the crisis in the form of a caretaker cabinet (in 1952) or a non-partisan presidential candidate (in 1958, 2008, and 2016).
At the same time, it should be noted that attempts to form a cabinet composed exclusively of senior LAF (and occasionally also of ISF) officers failed (in 1975 and 1988), as did armed revolts of LAF personnel (in 1976), the creation of army factions (during the civil war of 1975–1990), and coup attempts launched by LAF officers (in 1976 and also in 1961).4 Importantly, these failures attest not only to the success of “coup proofing” measures taken by Lebanon’s political and military leaders (Quinlivan, 1999), but also to the anti-militaristic tendencies among many Lebanese, who do not accept that “The Army Remains the Solution” (cf. Aoun, 1988).
The second factor, which is closely related to the first, is the widespread distrust in Lebanon’s divided society towards its civilian politicians. Indeed, before, during, and in the wake of the civil war of 1975–1990, and with few exceptions, Lebanese political leaders mostly managed to gain the support of members of their own communities, but they elicited fear and distrust in others. By contrast, the LAF has enjoyed broad public support that cuts across the lines of community, region, and family. Thus, the political role of the LAF (especially in the crises in 1952 and 1958, and also in 2008, 2011, and 2019) has been seen as legitimate and as reflecting a national (i.e., a supra-communal) agenda. However, when the LAF, or actors from within it, were seen as abusing their prerogatives (e.g., in the period 1958–1970) or as acting in a partisan (or “sectarian”) manner (such as in 1975–1976, in 1983–1984, in 1988–1990, and according to some observers also in 2008), support for its political role declined.
The third and last factor that should be mentioned is the continuous efforts made by the LAF since its establishment in 1945 to present itself to its own members, to the various groups that make up Lebanon’s divided society, and also to external actors in the Middle East and beyond, as a national—that is, a multi-communal—and “professional” institution, thereby distancing itself from Lebanon’s political leaders. In order to project this image, the LAF has continuously employed its official bulletins, speeches and interviews by its officers, ceremonies and parades, public exhibitions, radio programs, social media outlets, and so forth (Barak, 2009; see also Hazbun, 2016). It has also disseminated historical narratives that extol its role in the service of the nation (Barak, 2001).
Importantly, this message has found appeal not only among audiences from various Lebanese communities, but also among foreign actors such as the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the UN, which have provided the LAF with much-needed support, training, and equipment. A telling example is a statement by Jan Kubis, the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, on the occasion of Lebanon’s 74th Army Day in 2019.5 The UN official not only “praised the committed professional efforts of the Lebanese Armed Forces in safeguarding the security of Lebanon, its borders and its population, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and in extending State authority” but added that the military has played a “tremendous role” in keeping Lebanon and its people “safe from the threat of terrorism, landmines, instability or other external or internal threats.” Noting the “undisputed respect for the LAF from all Lebanese communities,” he also praised the LAF’s key role in promoting and protecting national unity as a guardian of civil peace and coexistence in Lebanon (Naharnet, 2019). The political role of the military in Lebanon’s divided society was thus extolled.
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(1.) The Druze are not Muslims but are regarded as such for political purposes.
(2.) These are the Internal Security Forces (ISF), which includes the police and gendarmerie; the General Directorate of General Security (al-Amn al-ʿAam; in French La Sûreté Générale); and the General Directorate of State Security (al-Mudiriyya al-ʿAama li-Amn al-Dawla).
(3.) Thus, the ISF is currently headed by a Sunni Muslim; the General Directorate of General Security is currently headed by a Shi‘i Muslim; and the General Directorate of State Security is currently headed by a Catholic.
(4.) In December 1961, two junior LAF officers were involved in a failed coup attempt by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a small pan-Syrian political faction in Lebanon.
(5.) Since 1978, a UN force called UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) has been deployed in South Lebanon. In recent years, UNIFIL, which was upgraded following the war between Israel and Hizbullah in 2006, has closely cooperated with Lebanon’s security sector, including the LAF. On UNIFIL and its activities, see UNIFIL.