Israel’s provocative actions in Lebanon a sign of the military mismatch in the region

The Lebanese army, which has limited capabilities, is trapped in a regional conflict beyond its control

Lebanese army soldiers stand near a poster of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Adaisseh village near the Lebanese-Israeli border, Lebanon August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
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The Lebanese army was showered with praise on Wednesday night when a soldier was filmed opening fire on Israeli drones violating the country’s airspace.

The incident came days after President Michel Aoun called the explosion of an Israeli drone in south Beirut and the crash landing of another represented “a declaration of war” against Lebanon.

Tensions between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah reached new heights since the weekend incident that left a Hezbollah media centre deep in its stronghold of southern Beirut damaged.

Israeli officials have been briefing that the operation targeted sophisticated Iranian missile flight systems.

Then came the Lebanese army’s response on Wednesday to the drone.

The soldier opened fire with his M16 assault rifle at three Israeli drones hovering above a military camp near the border. His action forced the drone to fly back to Israel.

It is the first time that the army opened fire on this particular category of Israeli drone, Aram Nerguizian, senior advisor at Carnegie Middle East Center on civil-military relations in Arab states, said. Senior military personnel believe it to be of the commercial variety modified to carry explosives, he added.

Lebanese politicians from all sides of the spectrum, including fierce Hezbollah critic and ex-Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi and militant Palestinian group Hamas, immediately congratulated the Lebanese army on its move as an affirmation of its sovereignty.

By contrast, in July 2018 when a drone flew 10 kilometres into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from Syria, the Israeli military brought it down with a Patriot missile costing tens of thousands of dollars to bring it down.

Despite the rare military action this week, the Lebanese army doesn’t have much ability to stand up to Israel.

A Lebanese Army M60 tank drives down a military parade during an official ceremony commemorating the country's 73rd independence day in the capital Beirut, on November 22, 2016. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
A Lebanese Army M60 tank drives down a military parade during an official ceremony commemorating the country's 73rd independence day in the capital Beirut in 2016. AFP

The Lebanese army collapsed on more than one occasion during the civil war and remained weak after the end of the 15-year conflict in 1990 and until occupying Syrian troops left the country in 2005.

Since the mid-2000s, America and other Western allies – such as the UK and France – have provided significant training, support and weapons donations.

The US has given more than $2.29 billion in just over a decade.

Today, by Arab regional standards, the Lebanese army’s ground units are “well trained, well-motivated, and led by competent officers,” said Mr Nerguizian.

While Lebanon’s military may be professional and competent, their expertise and equipment are specifically focused.

Much of the support has been geared towards securing the country, preserving stability and counter-terrorism. Lacking is a national defence strategy to deal with foreign invasion.

A clear example of this is in the air. While Israel is involved in the American-led development of the next generation F-35 stealth multirole combat jet, Lebanon’s air force is small.

As well some helicopters, Lebanon received six Super Tucano turboprop light attack aircraft from the US designed for counter-insurgency and limited air support missions.

Unlike Israel, Lebanon has no domestic defence procurement and relies almost exclusively on foreign aid from the West. This comes with restrictions – one being that the arms will not threaten Israeli security.

Indeed, the US has been committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge since 1967 – in essence, keeping the Israeli military technologically and tactically ahead of its larger neighbours.

“The Lebanese army can defend itself by shooting at drones to ward them off. But if there is a massive Israeli attack, everybody knows that balance of power is in favour of Israel,” said retired Lebanese general Khalil Helou.

“Lebanon would be unable to buy a single bullet because it does not have the budget,” he added with a slightly exaggerated flourish.

Lebanon has no radar systems to detect aircraft and no air defence systems to intercept them either.

Today, the Lebanese army lags far behind its Israeli counterpart, which has capabilities such as “offensive air and naval capabilities, long-range strike and second strike, and satellite-based intelligence collection”, said Mr Nerguizian.

Lebanese soldiers next to a Hezbollah flag patrol in the southern Lebanese village of Aitaroun, on the Israel-Lebanon border, Israel, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. Israeli forces along the border with Lebanon are on high alert, raising fears of a repeat of the 2006 war. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Lebanese soldiers next to a Hezbollah flag patrol in the southern Lebanese border village of Aitaroun. AP

Pro-Hezbollah politicians regularly argue that Lebanon should look to the likes of Russia, which seeks to strengthen its influence throughout the region, as a new supplier of arms with fewer restrictions.

However, when stories about Russia courting arms deals with Beirut hit the news, Washington is always quick to point out that their military assistance is free whereas Moscow offers lines of credit.

That said, Prime Minister Saad Hariri accepting a Russian donation of millions of bullets for the Lebanese police last November.

But Mr Nerguizian pointed out that the Lebanese army has no interest in pursuing deeper military ties with Russia.

“The army knows only too well how closely integrated it is in terms of US and NATO standard operating practices and will not compromise these gains by pursuing deeper military ties with Russia, China or Iran,” he said.

Everything from the calibre of bullet used in guns to the procurement of replacement parts could become overly complicated if Lebanon started integrated several different countries arms into their military.

But international military support can also cause controversies.

The US is clearly cautious about its military aid ending up in the hands of Hezbollah, which it classifies as a terrorist group.

“This is normal. Countries selling or giving weapons to another imposes restrictions on re-sale,” said Mr Helou.

The Lebanese military is often ordered to account for the arms they are given to prove that nothing has been stolen, sold or given away.

When images of a Hezbollah armoured column surfaced in 2016, Israel claimed that some of the personnel carriers were American-made models donated to the Lebanese army. After a US supervised audit, no Lebanese army vehicles were unaccounted for.

Experts suggested that Hezbollah’s column had, in fact, been taken by the group from the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army in 2000 as it collapsed when Israel retreated from the country.

The Lebanese army, and more broadly the government, say they don’t want a war with the vastly more powerful Israeli army.

But they remain trapped in a regional Iran-Israel conflict that threatens the country’s security.

The current relationship between the two countries is officially a cessation of hostilities after the 1949 armistice ended the Arab-Israeli war. But they have no diplomatic relations and no peace treaty has been signed.

An Israeli Merkava tank is positioned along the border with neighbouring Lebanon on August 27, 2019.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today warned Lebanon, Hezbollah's chief and the head of Iran's elite Quds Force to "be careful" with their words and actions.
Netanyahu spoke after a series of incidents in recent days that have raised tensions between Israel, Lebanon, Iran and Tehran-backed Hezbollah. / AFP / JACK GUEZ
An Israeli Merkava tank is positioned along the border with neighbouring Lebanon. AFP

Mr Nerguizian pointed out that the Lebanese military rarely, if ever, confronts Israel directly and even during the 34-day 2006 war they officially stayed out of the fight.

Despite not getting involved in the last Hezbollah-Israel war, Mr Nerguizian said the army would be obliged to fight back should Israel attack.

Even with its limited means, it would put up a defence, try to stand its ground, despite the likely significant losses, in order to remain legitimate in the eyes of the Lebanese.

While the army generally avoids getting into a shooting match with Israel, it has happened.

Clashes broke out in 2010 when an Israeli soldier tried to cut branches from an olive tree on or across the demarcation line and one Israeli soldier, two Lebanese soldiers and a civilian were killed.

“The Lebanese army believes it acted within reason and to maintain deterrence,” said Mr Nerguizian of the soldier’s actions on Wednesday.

But that, said Mr Nerguizian, is an outlier.

“The Lebanese army is a responsible regional actor that is motivated by maintaining calm and predictability along the UN Blue Line”, he said, referring to the line of withdrawal of Israeli forces in the year 2000 after 24 years of occupation.

But there is still the issue that while Lebanon might not want a war with Israel, Hezbollah might not leave it much choice.

After the end of the civil war in 1990, Hezbollah was the only Lebanese militia to keep its weapons saying they would only be used to fight Israel.

Hezbollah supporters use the army’s deficiencies as proof that the group should keep their arms so that they can protect the country.

Today, it has become a powerful political party in Lebanon as well as one of the region’s strongest armed forces. But its critics still argue that Hezbollah’s fighters and weapons should be integrated into the Lebanese army.

After the weekend’s incident in Beirut Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave an angry speech vowing to strike back next time Israel violated Lebanese airspace.

This could serve to exacerbate the situation and Israel has made it clear it sees little distinction between the government forces and Hezbollah’s.

According to Mr Helou, “the Lebanese army is caught in a conflict that it does not want and that it does not control.”