Is It War? The Lebanese direction.
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

NRO 22/01/07

Looking out the window of his fourth-floor suite of medical offices in a primarily Christian area of Beirut, Dr. Rachid Rahme points toward a towering mosque less than a quarter mile away.

“Huge stockpiles of weapons and explosives are in that mosque,” Rahme, a leading physician and pro-Cedar Revolution political activist, tells me. “It’s a real concern for me and my family because it’s so near my office and our home. But it’s not just that mosque: All the mosques in Lebanon have become weapons depots for Hezbollah and other Islamist militant groups.”

Rahme’s concerns are based on a variety of independent sources of human intelligence. Everybody in Lebanon seems to know what’s going on — though many are in a state of denial — and the army is incapable of doing anything about it.

Lebanon — a strategically vital front in the global war on terror, and whose combined military and national police forces are being heavily supported by hundreds-of-millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars — is in serious trouble. Political assassinations, assassination attempts, and death threats are a regular occurrence in this country. And far too many politicians are afraid to blame those responsible — Syria, Iran, and Lebanese-based Hezbollah, Amal, and other jihadist groups.

In downtown Beirut, a few miles from Rahme’s office, Hezbollah has set up a sprawling camp between the parliament and the Serail government building in defiance of free elections. Hezbollah, which also operates in several “security zones” (small independent Hezbollah cities inside sovereign Lebanese territory across the country), is well-armed. And many frightened Lebanese lawmakers are holed up in Beirut’s Phoenicia Hotel under heavy security.

In such an environment it has so-far been impossible to elect a president to replace outgoing pro-Syrian Pres. Emile Lahoud. In fact, presidential elections — already delayed after a failed attempt last month — were slated for this coming Tuesday. Now Tuesday’s elections have been postponed due to an inability on the part of rival parliamentarians to agree on a consensus candidate. If a president isn’t elected by November 24, the day Lahoud steps down, the government could split and the country erupt into a full-blown civil war, a conflict many Lebanese people believe has already begun.

Despite its political instability and uncertainty, Lebanon’s problems don’t all stem from weak political will and extranational influences: In fact, much of the blame for Lebanon’s political problems has to be laid at the feet of Lebanon’s military forces. I’m not talking about the rank-and-file of the Lebanese armed forces: If anyone were to observe the soldiers at the platoon level — from private to lieutenant — they would find Lebanon actually fields one of the finest little armies in the world. This was proven at the small-unit level during the recent battle against al Qaeda-affiliated Fatah al Islam at the Palestinian refugee camp, Nahr al Bared, near the northern coastal city of Tripoli.

The problems — also starkly exhibited at Nahr al Bared — begin at the highest levels of military leadership: Generals, many afraid to speak the truth, who excuse terrorist organizations as legitimate “resistance” groups, who blame government leaders for their own inability to protect the country, and who are still so wired to the demands of their Syrian lords — despite Syria having been kicked out of Lebanon more than two years ago by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 — lack the combat-critical levels of decisiveness and moral courage required of successful military commanders.

Basically, Lebanese generalship is weak.
It’s a strange dichotomy: A tough, cohesive albeit religiously diverse 50,000-man force — including the army (and special operations forces), navy, and air force — commanded by a general-officer corps of “yes men” who have allowed Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah to maintain and even increase their strength and political leverage in the country.

Then there is the 15,000-man United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which has thus far been incapable of implementing U.N. Security Council Resolutions calling for free and independent elections in Lebanon, disarming the militias (Hezbollah skirts this by calling itself a “resistance” movement.), keeping the peace, and preventing cross border incursions by Syria and Israel. Syrian outposts are positioned on Lebanese land and Israeli jets are regularly penetrating Lebanese airspace.

The next few weeks will prove to be critical for Lebanon: They’ll either freely elect a president or move closer toward war.

***A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. Smith is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. He blogs at The Tank, where he will be writing more about his recent experiences in Lebanon.