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Lebanon's Crisis Threatens its Army

Lebanon's Crisis Threatens its Army

Wednesday, 16 June, 2021 - 06:45
A protestor gestures as he talks with Lebanese soldiers in Nahr El Kalb, Lebanon May 20, 2021. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

Since the civil war, through wars with Israel, militant bombings and domestic turmoil, Lebanese have considered their military as an anchor for stability, one of the only institutions standing above the country’s divisions.

But the military is now threatened by Lebanon’s devastating financial collapse, one of the worst the world has seen in the past 150 years, according to the World Bank.

The economic meltdown is putting unprecedented pressure on the US-backed army’s operational abilities, wiping out soldiers’ salaries and wrecking morale. The deterioration puts at risk one of the few forces unifying Lebanon at a time when sectarian tensions and crime are on the rise amid the population’s deepening poverty, The Associated Press reported.

“Such a decline could be harbinger of the kinds of instability not seen since the last time Lebanon’s political elites gutted or set adrift the Lebanese armed forces, namely in the five years leading up to the 1975-1990 civil war,” said Aram Nerguizian, senior advisor of the Program on Civil-Military Affairs in Arab States at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The military itself has raised the alarm, unusual for a force that is perhaps unique in the Middle East in that it largely remains outside politics.

Army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun warned in a speech to officers in March that soldiers were “suffering and hungry like the rest of the people.”

He also openly criticized the political leadership, which has been paralyzed by infighting and has done almost nothing to address the crisis. “What are you waiting for? What do you plan to do? We have warned more than once of the dangers of the situation,” he said — a startling comment since army officers are not allowed to make political statements.

A senior army official confirmed to the AP that the economic situation has greatly affected morale. “There is no doubt that there is great resentment among the ranks of the military,” the official said.

The official noted that “many duties are demanded of the military,” including maintaining internal stability. “The leadership is worried over developments in the security situation on the ground and the ability to deal with this issue,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Supporting the army is crucial to avoid Lebanon falling into chaos, he added.

France is convening a virtual fundraising conference Thursday seeking emergency aid, after army chief Aoun visited Paris last month pleading for assistance. France warned that Lebanon’s military “may no longer be able to fully implement their missions which are essential to the country’s stability.” The US, the army’s largest backer, has pledged to increase aid in 2021.

Nerguizian warned that degradation of the military would allow Hezbollah to loom even larger -- an outcome few outside Lebanon, particularly in Washington, want to see materialize.

It could also open the door for countries like Russia, China, Iran or Syria to co-opt the force and find ways to influence it.

After decades of corruption and mismanagement by the political elite, Lebanon’s economy began to disintegrate in October 2019. The once-thriving banking sector has collapsed, and the currency has lost around 90 percent of its value to the dollar on the black market. More than half the nation has been plunged into poverty.

Equally hit are the 80,000 members of the military. Before the crisis, an enlisted soldier earned the equivalent of about $800 a month, but that has now dropped to less than $100 per month. Officers’ salaries are higher but have also dropped in value, now about $400 a month.

The army has tightened spending. A year ago, it announced it would stop offering meat in meals given to soldiers on duty. It still offers free medical treatment, but those in the force say the quality and effectiveness has sharply deteriorated.

“Morale is below the ground,” said a 24-year-old soldier who quit the force in March after five years of service.

He said that by the time he left, the 1.2 million Lebanese pounds salary he received was barely enough for food, cigarettes and transportation. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.

Mohammad Olayan, who retired two years ago after more than 27 years in the military, told The Associated Press that his end-of-service pay has been wiped out by the crash. Instead of a decent retirement, he now must take odd jobs to sustain his 12-year-old twin girls.

“What incentive is there for young soldiers?” he asked. “I sacrificed so much for my country and look how I ended up because of this mafia,” he said, referring to politicians.

During anti-government demonstrations that swept the country in late 2019, videos of soldiers overcome by emotion as they confronted protesters were widely shared on social media.

Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese army general who is currently a researcher in military affairs, said he did not believe the collapse scenario is now possible.

“This is not an army’s crisis but a country’s crisis. In the past there were major security problems that affected the army and led to its disintegration," he said, referring to the civil war.

“That is not the case today.”

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