Lebanon may be at risk of a new war. The ISIL-linked fighters who killed 11 soldiers in the northern city of Tripoli last week are threatening to plunge the country into another civil war. That’s despite the fact that US President Barack Obama’s plan for confronting ISIL is built upon providing support to friendly governments who seek to contain and drive back radical forces in the Middle East. In this case, US action is constrained by a domestic law that commits the US to providing Israel with a “qualitative military edge” over its neighbours. That law ultimately weakens Lebanon in its fight against armed extremist groups.
Unlike other terrorist groups, ISIL seems to be committed to invading and holding territory. Fighters invariably target high-value strategic targets – like the Mosul dam – thereby enhancing their military leverage as they progress towards their goal of territorial consolidation.
ISIL fighters have been careful to avoid opening new fronts with states that command organised and effective armies. Most notably, they have avoided any talk of invading parts of Turkey. Their strategy seems to be destabilisation and entrenchment before invasion, all while avoiding more powerful, organised fighting forces. And it appears that the strategy is currently being unleashed on the Lebanon-Syria border.
On August 2, ISIL fighters infiltrated the Lebanese border town of Arsal from Syria. The town is home to many Syrian refugees and Lebanese civilians which meant that the fighters were able to cross the border with little difficulty. They took 16 Lebanese policemen hostage after capturing the police station and several checkpoints in the village.
With support from Hezbollah, the army quickly responded. One hundred militants, 42 civilians and 18 soldiers were reportedly killed in the fighting that followed. An additional 27 soldiers were taken captive, two of whom were beheaded in the past two months. In light of the enormous human and military losses, observers may wonder why the army didn’t perform as effectively as it might have. That question has been underlined by the deaths of 11 soldiers in Tripoli this week, reportedly while fighting ISIL partisans in that city.
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The army is perhaps the least sectarian institution in Lebanon; conscripts join from all the major sects. Yet, it is far from being the most effective fighting force in the country. Hezbollah’s armed wing is better organised and equipped. Its fighters are also battle-hardened after years of clashes with the Israeli army.
Despite that, the Shia group has rightly demonstrated a reluctance to lead the fight against ISIL. That’s because a Hezbollah-led war on ISIL will likely inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which in turn, could develop into a second, more savage civil war.
At the same time, the Lebanese army is unwilling to overtly cooperate with the regime of Bashar al-Assad – which controls, what some believe, the only Arab military currently capable of confronting ISIL. The Lebanese army is losing ground; the Iraqi army has suffered setbacks; the Jordanian army lacks the capacity and desire to confront ISIL alone; and the Egyptian army will not participate.
But no Lebanese citizen seeks to revisit the decades of Syrian occupation by inviting the Syrian army back across the border.
The best remaining choice for the Lebanese state is to seek armaments and support from western governments. The Americans in particular have already supplied approximately $9m of $20m worth of “rifles, anti-tank missiles and mortars” to the Lebanese army. However, while more sophisticated arms are needed, it is unclear whether they will be forthcoming.
Qualitative military edge
In 2008, US President George W Bush signed the Naval Vessel Transfer Act into law. By doing so he committed the United States to ensuring that “the sale or export of the defence articles or defence services will not adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel”.
According to journalist Paul Woodward, the law was partially the outcome of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon. From the Israeli perspective the war was a failure; Hezbollah’s militants were very effective at repelling the Israeli invasion and eroding the perception of Israeli military supremacy. Israel reacted in part by rallying its lobbyists in Washington to push for the enactment of the qualitative military edge law. In essence, it is meant to reinforce Israel’s fighting ability while undermining future adversaries’ capabilities.
The legislation reinforces years of US foreign policy. But what was formerly the prerogative of the US president was transformed by Congress into a compulsory law. The difference is a meaningful one. It restricts Obama’s capacity to make decisions about what coordination and support may best be provided to Lebanon as it works to defeat ISIL.
In other words, an AIPAC lobbyist or congressional staffer is now in a position to vet US aid to Lebanon. And in the truest spirit of unintended consequences, that fact may contribute to the emergence of a stronger and more dangerous ISIL group.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a Soros Fellow, coeditor of After Zionism (Saqi Books 2012) and cofounder and CEO of liwwa.com.