'Now or never': Lebanon seeks to avert another vacancy as end of army chief's term nears

Tenure of Gen Joseph Aoun due to expire on January 10 as politicians cannot reach agreement over next steps

Lebanese army chief General Joseph Aoun arrives at an operational command post in the eastern town of Ras Baalbek, on August 23, 2017, as troops are conducting an operation against the Islamic State (IS) group on the country's border with Syria. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER
Powered by automated translation

“This is now or never in the parliament,” says a representative from the Lebanese Forces, the party with the most seats in Lebanon's bitterly divided legislature. He then explained how the government had delayed tackling a looming vacancy in a crucial Lebanese institution, with the term of Gen Joseph Aoun set to expire in less than a month.

“The right way today is to go to the parliament,” insisted the LF source, whose party supports extending the term of the army general by another year.

“In the parliament, we believe it's the right place right now to do it. This is the only scenario possible that will save this institution from taking steps similar to other institutions, which means taking the Lebanese Armed Forces to an unsure destiny.”

Speaker Nabih Berri has called MPs to parliament on Thursday for a legislative session, a close aide to the powerful chief told The National, with the situation of the army commander due to be discussed. On the agenda is whether to extend Gen Aoun's term by another year, raising his retirement age by 12 months and solving a potential leadership vacuum.

Lebanese authorities did not appear close to extending the terms of embattled central bank governor Riad Salameh or influential General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim when both their remits came to an end earlier this year.

But with Gen Aoun, there appears to be an incentive to keep him in place. The issue is complicated by the absence of a president since October 2022. The head of state is responsible for appointing significant positions including the army commander.

While the Council of Ministers typically takes on head of state powers in the event of a presidential vacuum – common in Lebanon – the cabinet is in a caretaker status and thus severely restricted in its powers.

This comes as Lebanon grapples with its most precarious security situation since 2006, as Hezbollah and Israel engage in daily cross-border strikes on the southern border.

The Council of Ministers has appeared to do little to tackle the issue of the impending vacancy, although there are unconfirmed reports that might change.

Further complicating the issue is the most vocal opponent to extending Gen Aoun’s tenure, the Free Patriotic Movement, which has a significant number of ministers from or close to the party.

Their ministers have been abstaining from the cabinet because they say, given its caretaker status, it is unconstitutional to convene. They have also argued against extending Gen Aoun’s term.

The FPM say there are processes in place that mean there would never be a vacuum at the head of the Lebanese Armed Forces. In the case of Gen Ibrahim and Mr Salameh, their deputies took on the top jobs in an acting capacity.

However, critics outlined that the position of LAF chief of staff, which is the second most senior army position, is also vacant.

They argue that FPM leader Gebran Bassil's vocal opposition to extending Gen Aoun's term is partly due to personal disagreements he has with the army commander, something an aide to Mr Bassil denied.

“It's nothing personal, it's related to the constitution,” he said.

UN soldiers help south Lebanese firefighters prepare for war

UN soldiers help south Lebanese firefighters prepare for war

The approval of Defence Minister Maurice Sleem is also important, but he has signalled his opposition to extending the term of Gen Aoun.

Mr Sleem is seen as a close ally of the FPM and was nominated as Defence Minister by former President and the founder of the FPM Michel Aoun.

With only weeks left of Gen Aoun’s term and the looming Christmas slowdown of government business, the appointment has seemingly fallen to parliament.

The FPM has insisted there will not be a void, arguing against what it views as an unconstitutional extension of Gen Aoun's term.

Another element to consider is Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese armed group and political party that wields significant influence over the country. A close ally of Mr Berri's Amal Movement and still on good terms with the FPM, the Shiite movement has not publicly made its position clear.

After a period where relations appeared to be strained, the Hezbollah-FPM alliance seems to be strengthening once more. Whether the powerful group backs the FPM remains to be seen, but last month Hezbollah underlined the need to “find an appropriate solution to avoid a leadership vacuum in the army, as its term is approaching”.

The political divisions over the army commander are an illustration of the often impossible tasks the 128 MPs face in agreeing in a parliament where no faction holds a majority.

That impasse has meant no one had come close to succeeding Mr Aoun as Lebanon's next president, after his term came to an end in October 2022. Various officials have tried and failed to hold the presidency, leading to international calls for a third way and another person who could reach the required threshold. Among the names discussed is Gen Aoun.

Updated: December 13, 2023, 12:21 PM