Israel’s alliance with the United States remains one of the most important strategic assets Jerusalem has, but that still has not prevented the two allies from taking different views on a number of issues throughout the years, including the role played by Lebanon’s official military, the Lebanese Armed Forces.
For the United States, the LAF is a regional partner in the war against the Islamic State. It has received both U.S. funding and arms sales for that purpose.
According to Israeli military assessments, however, the LAF is increasingly coming under the sway of the Iranian-backed terror organization Hezbollah, which dominates Lebanon politically and militarily.
Hezbollah, in many ways, is the true sovereign power in Lebanon, with the ability to veto any political decision and outgun any other armed force there. It has turned the southern part of the country into a rocket and missile base, in violation of international law and right under the nose of the international community.
A recent visit to the Lebanese-Israeli border by a high-ranking Iranian official, Ebrahim Raisi, who is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, offers an accurate illustration of who is in control of Lebanon. Raisi was given a tour by armed Hezbollah members, vowing during his visit that “soon, we will witness the liberation of Jerusalem.”
Lebanon’s military plays second fiddle to Hezbollah, and according to assessments by the Israel Defense Forces, Hezbollah’s dominance of the Lebanese military is growing.
IDF sources have said in recent months that Hezbollah began using LAF border assets to gather intelligence on Israel. In addition, IDF sources have witnessed joint LAF-Hezbollah border patrols, indicating a new, unprecedented level of cooperation.
Despite Israel’s view of the LAF, the United States has not shifted its own stance. A State Department spokesperson told JNS this week that the “LAF is a valued partner in the fight against ISIS, and we remain committed to strengthening the LAF with the training and equipment it needs to protect Lebanon and preserve its stability. The United States has provided over $1.5 billion in security assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces [LAF] since 2006.”
The State Department added that the LAF has “an exemplary track record with U.S.-provided equipment. We also monitor end-use of defense articles to mitigate the risk that Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations could benefit from U.S. assistance.”
In 2017, the United States gave the LAF $120 million, saying the money was to assist its Syria-border security work against ISIS. In addition, America sold it six light attack helicopters, drones, communications and night-vision equipment. It also sold it two armed light attack planes.
The view from Israel is different. In October, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described the LAF as an integral part of Hezbollah.
Last year, the Hebrew daily Maariv, quoting Israeli defense officials, assessed that the LAF will join Hezbollah as a “significant enemy” of Israel should a new war break out. Armed by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia, the LAF can reportedly direct anti-tank missiles and helicopters against the IDF, though it would risk devastating return fire from Israel if it did so. The report also quoted defense sources as saying that the LAF’s chief of staff is drawing closer to Hezbollah.
Now, tensions are rising between the Lebanese state and Israel. Lebanon is disputing Israel’s right to search for gas in the northern part of its economic zone in the Mediterranean Sea, and Hezbollah has exploited the current friction to release a video threatening Israel’s offshore gas rigs with missiles.
On Thursday, Lebanon’s president and political ally of Hezbollah, Michel Aoun, stated that his country is conducting diplomatic efforts to stop “Israel’s ambitions” at sea, in the air and on land—referring to Israeli work on border-security measures, which Lebanon objects to. Aoun added that Lebanon would “stand against any aggression,” a veiled reference to the LAF.
Aoun’s comments mirror Hezbollah’s own position. Hezbollah has been watching Israel work to boost border security, which includes building an electronic sensor barrier and a tall border wall. The IDF is also digging artificial cliffs designed to slow intrusions by Hezbollah’s elite Radwan unit.
Working to turn Lebanon into an Iranian outpost
Hezbollah’s growing influence on the LAF is just one manifestation of a wider trend—Iran’s conversion of the area into a Lebanese outpost, according to Israeli assessments.
Col. (ret.) Gabi Siboni, director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said this Iranian influence can be seen in the entrance of Shi’ite militias into Lebanon and the setting up of Iranian weapons factories on Lebanese soil.
“This phenomenon has a significant influence on the stability of the northern arena—the Lebanese and Syrian fronts together,” said Siboni.
“Although the Lebanese interest in escalating the situation is not at all clear, Iran does apparently have an interest in increasing destabilization,” he continued. “This is due to Iran’s apparent calculation that it will not be harmed by an escalation in the north, and that the only blood that will be spilled will be that of its proxies.
“This is an equation that the IDF will have to change in the next confrontation, so that not only Lebanon and Hezbollah will be hit hard, but also Iran’s important interests.”
Siboni, who commanded an IDF reconnaissance unit and served as an IDF division chief of staff in the reserves, said that in any new clash, the IDF’s new capabilities will make the Second Lebanon War of 2006 look small in scale.
Hezbollah is so deeply entrenched in its host state, he added, that it “is now clear to everyone that Lebanon equals Hezbollah.”