Strong Lebanese Army Needed? Problematic Historic Precedents

John O. Voll

The Lebanese Army is mentioned frequently in proposals for bringing an end to the fighting in South Lebanon. Such proposals tend to ignore the historical experience of the military in Lebanon and assume that somehow the Lebanese army will be able, in a short time, to do what the immensely more powerful Israeli army could not do in eighteen years of occupation of south Lebanon nor, apparently, in the current major campaign.

In the proposed United Nations Resolutions supported by the United States, President Bush noted that in the second resolution, “the Lebanese forces, supported by the international force, will deploy to southern Lebanon.” (Office of the Press Secretary release, 7 August 2006) Similarly, in response to these proposed resolutions, the Lebanese government “offered to send 15,000 troops to the border when Israel pulls out.” (BBC News, 7 August 2006). Both of these statements, along with many others, assume that the Lebanese Army has the strength and capacity to compete effectively with the Israeli and Hizbullah armed forces in southern Lebanon. In particular, there is the presumption that it could have the ability to “disarm Hizbullah” if the command were given by the government.

There is a parallel assumption that it would be (or is) a good thing to have a strong Lebanese army that is directed by the central government and that it should have the power to disarm local and sectarian militias. There is some contradiction between these assumptions (and hopes) and the historical experience of the Lebanese army since independence. It is important to recognize that historical precedents raise questions about the viability of the currently proposed roles for the Lebanese army.

Lebanon’s political system is distinctive in the Arab world. It has maintained a democratic system and avoided periods of rule by military dictatorship or military-based authoritarian regimes. This experience is at least partially tied to the lack of a strong central Lebanese Army. However, the lack of this strong central military force opened the way for the creation of non-government armed forces or militias. As a result, Lebanon experienced periods of major civil conflict involving private or communal armies, and the central government did not have the military capacity to end the fighting. Instead, when the long period of civil war came to an end in 1988-1989, it was the result of civilian political negotiations, not a military victory by any of the forces involved.

The negotiated settlement of the long civil war, the Taif Agreement of 1989, was opposed by the Maronite Christian commander of the Lebanese Army, Michel Awn (Aoun). Awn had just been named Prime Minister, contrary to the long-standing political custom that the Prime Minister would be a Sunni Muslim. Awn used his position in the Army as the basis for demanding a radical change in the whole political system and gained some popularity. An informed analyst at the time noted that the “essence of his popularity was that he presented himself as a revolutionary figure who would sweep aside occupying powers, militias, and the traditional ruling groups and establish a strong state under the protection of the Army.” (Paul Salem in The Beirut Review [Spring 1991]). This picture is the classic image of the military savior-dictator common in the Arab world. The Lebanese Army, however, soon fragmented into its communal parts and Awn’s supporters clashed with a major Maronite militia, with substantial loss of life and property. By the end of 1990, the supporters of the new government created by the Taif Agreement were able to defeat Awn and he went into exile.

General Awn’s failure highlights the dilemma of building and maintaining a strong central military in a society like Lebanon composed of a number of different socio-religious communities. The potential for destructive chaos is great, when each part of the society has the possibility of creating its own military power. The civil war from 1975 to 1989 is proof of this. However, creation of a strong central military poses different problems. If the army is a reflection of the society, the soldiers will be drawn from the different communities and, in a time of crisis, the military may disintegrate into its component parts, as it did when Awn tried to use the army to impose his command on the country. However, if it were possible to create a military identity and loyalty not tied to the communal identities within society, the army could become the tool of a military dictator in suppressing elements of diversity within the country. Fear of a military dominated by one of the communities has been an important factor in Lebanese politics since it gained independence at the end of World War II.

The Lebanese mode of coping with crises of state and politics has depended upon negotiation and compromise. In a series of times of conflict, the resolution of those conflicts tended to involve the principle of “No Victors, No Vanquished.” At times, there were opportunities for the military leaders to take control and impose security upon the country, but the result was the failure of the military option.

In recommending a strong role for the Lebanese army in resolving the current conflict, this history needs to be kept in mind. In this context, efforts to destroy Hizbullah become counterproductive. Between the alternatives of the chaos of multiple militias and the “stability” of a Saddam-like suppression of Shiite and other communal militias, the middle path of negotiated compromise may be necessary. Such a compromise is not ideal, and it provides no absolute guarantee that there will not be a return to the status quo ante. However, there is equally no guarantee that the current approach of using overwhelming force to crush Hizbullah and destroy southern Lebanon will do anything more than raise levels of hatred in the region for years to come.

John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.