During the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990, the Lebanese army fractured many times along sectarian lines resulting from Syrian and Iranian pressure. At the beginning of the war the Lebanese army was facing a numerically stronger and better-equipped PLO force. Sectarian and ideological loyalties further undermined the authority of the Lebanese government. The divisions — both ideological, between right and left, and sectarian, between Christian and Muslim — were a powder keg for civil war. In February 1975, the Lebanese army was called in to quell civil disorder resulting form violent demonstrations in Sidon organized by the Lebanese Communist party (LCP) and other leftists. Muslim leaders protested the action. Christian students in Beirut led demonstrations in support of the army’s response. Soon, fighting between Maronite and Muslim army recruits ensued. Primarily Christian parties organized themselves into various militias which eventually became the Lebanese Front (LF). The Lebanese National Movement (LNM) became an umbrella for leftist, anti-government parties.
During the escalating violence, the Lebanese army did not and could not exert authority. It suffered a traumatic weakening when about 3,000 soldiers joined the Lebanese Front followed by another 3,000 joining the Lebanese National Movement. By September 1988, General Michel Aoun, who became prime minister, had only five or six of the nine brigades of the Lebanese army operational because of sectarian and ideological splits. It was engaged with the pro-Syrian, anti-government militias and the Syrian army. In 1990, Aoun’s government imploded as it became locked in conflict with Christian Lebanese Forces. Cohesiveness could not be sustained by the Lebanese army because it lacked loyalty to a common mission — protecting Lebanese sovereignty.
Today, the Lebanese army is dominated by Shiites, making up approximately 35 percent of the force. Christians, who formed the core of the Lebanese army during the 1980s, now comprise about 30 percent of the force. However, the commanding officers remain Christian. Sunni Muslims and Druze account for about 30 percent. It is poorly equipped as compared with the well-armed Hezbollah, supplied by Iran and Syria. More importantly, since 1998 Syrian intelligence agents and Hezbollah supporters have significantly infiltrated military intelligence. Army intelligence is controlled by the pro-Syrian Lebanese president, Emile Lahood, whose term was extended unconstitutionally. Pro-militia and pro-Syrian elements remain embedded in the fabric of the Lebanese army. Officers and soldiers with ties to Hezbollah and Amal, and another armed militia which is led by speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, bring dangerous divided loyalties to the Lebanese army, severely reducing its ability to be an instrument of stability and peace. The deployment of the multinational force (MNF) to Beirut in 1982 gave much needed neutrality that enabled the Lebanese army to restore the authority of the central government. The bombings of the U. S. embassy and Marine barracks in 1983 and subsequent withdrawal of the MNF made this success short lived.
An expanded role for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) as a substitute for a robust multi-national force does not inspire confidence in most Lebanese. Hezbollah armed itself and consolidated power in south Lebanon under the watchful eye of UNIFIL for the past six years. Originally, UNIFIL was mandated by UNSCR 425 on March 19, 1978, “for the purpose of confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces, restoring international peace and security, and assisting the government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.” Subsequently, it was instructed to use its presence to stop the recurrence of fighting and to prevent the area from being used to conduct hostile actions. If the U.N. force had fulfilled its operational mandate, the people of Lebanon and Israel would not be suffering the present crisis.
For the international community to impose upon the Lebanese army such an ambitious mission to extend Lebanese sovereignty in the south and east of Lebanon and to implement UNSCR 1559, without a vibrant multi-national force to provide necessary neutrality, is to invite the old problem of sectarian and ideological divisions, plunging the nation into another civil war.