The US wants to stem a tide of desertions from the ranks of the Lebanese military by diverting part of its security assistance to basic “livelihood support” that will help one of the country's few stable state institutions as Beirut grapples with a financial crisis.
The cash, part of a $67 million payment for military funding, would help the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) respond to a “wide range of security, economic, and public health challenges currently facing the country”, State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week.
Without providing details on how much would be rerouted under the plan, which has been presented to Congress, Mr Price said the procedure would ensure the LAF can “carry out its duties and functions, including the ability to defend Lebanon’s territorial integrity, provide internal security and preserve stability".
The US has provided more than $2.5 billion to the LAF since 2006 in the form of lethal assistance.
Since the economic crisis began in 2019 and as the Lebanese lira lost more than 90 per cent of its value, the US sent fuel and food subsidies to the military.
Last year, Washington transferred $59m to Beirut to reimburse the LAF for border security operations, with the money to be used at the army’s discretion.
Such measures have helped the LAF sustain its capabilities, but the deepening economic crisis — one of the world's worst since 1850 — and the collapse of the local currency have led to desertions within the force.
Local Lebanese reports say about 5,000 LAF and security forces have walked off the job because of low salaries and the high cost of living.
Al Modon news site reported that scores of military personnel have stopped working because of transport costs.
A junior soldier’s monthly salary is now worth less than $100. Before the crisis, it was $800.
The rerouting of US military aid would allow the LAF to offset some of this lost income.
Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Programme at the Middle East Institute, saw the Biden administration's move as vital.
“This is a timely decision that has been very well received by rank-and-file in the army. An additional monthly $100 stipend added to their salary along with subsidies offered for food and health care can go a long way in keeping them in their jobs,” Ms Slim told The National.
She pointed to a recent report by Al Hadath, which showed that ISIS is capitalising on the crisis to recruit young Lebanese men in economically depressed areas, offering them higher pay than the LAF.
“This requires continued vigilance to counter the growing potential of radical extremists and prevent them from expanding their footprint in Lebanon,” Ms Slim said.
Hanin Ghaddar, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, saw the US decision as designed to prevent the LAF's disintegration.
“It’s very simple: if the soldiers started leaving, the US will not be able to maintain the unity and functions of the LAF,” Ms Ghaddar told The National.
“They need to pay salaries to make sure that the service members come to work.”
She saw the move as having bipartisan backing Congress, which makes it unlikely to be challenged.
“The US doesn't have a solid policy in Lebanon but it does have an interest and a policy to support the LAF,” Ms Ghaddar added.
That interest is even more urgent following recent clashes in Beirut as authorities try to maintain peace before the elections on May 15, she explained.
“For that purpose, Washington needs the army. Without it, the veneer of Lebanese stability is over.”