Lebanon – one of the most critical fronts in the war on terror – is on the brink of a full-blown shooting war. Few Americans living or traveling outside of that country seem to have any prescient understanding of this: Perhaps it is because Americans are so keenly focused on the bloodier, more immediate twin fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our own forthcoming general elections here at home. Maybe it is because the Lebanese media seems to spend more time and energy reporting to itself than to the international press.
No matter the reasons, if we don’t focus more of our attention on this strategically important ally, we’re going to find ourselves in a position – perhaps before Christmas – trying to figure a way to extinguish a sectarian fire far more dangerous than that which we are currently struggling to put out in Iraq.
Not to say Iraq is no longer dangerous: It is. But we already have a huge military footprint there. After nearly five years of fighting, we have a substantive grasp of the war’s various causes and directions. We’re gaining the upper hand – seemingly exponentially -- against the sources of violence. We are standing up strong, legitimate Iraqi security forces. And we are building good relationships with the Iraqi people.
In Lebanon -- where the parliament has less than one month from now to elect a president which it has not been able to do in two previous attempts -- there are multiple armed Jihadist factions: all training, stockpiling weapons, building and rebuilding defenses, gathering intelligence, threatening politicians, assassinating a few, probing existing security forces, and waiting for orders from the likes of Syria and Iran and chiefs-in-hiding like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Hezbollah, supported by Syria and trained-and-equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, has worldwide reach. But it currently fields between 2,000 and 3,000 armed-militiamen in Lebanon. Hezbollah says its militiamen are “resistance” fighters, because according to United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680, and 1701 armed “militias” are outlawed in Lebanon. And Hezbollah can quickly bring another 25,000 men to arms if there is war.
Hezbollah is only one of multiple Jihadist-terrorists factions based and operating in Lebanon. Many, like Hezbollah and Amal, fly their flags together in the same villages.
Then there is the Lebanese military; including the army (and all special operations forces), the navy (with a few patrol boats), and the air force (with no serviceable fixed-wing warplanes): Lebanese forces number only 50,000 men – not counting the 2,500 national police -- and like all armies, only a small percentage of the Lebanese ground forces are front-line combat soldiers.
The strength of the armed forces lies within its junior-officer leadership, tough training for the special operations forces, and the fact that many of the old guard reservists have combat experience from the army and militias during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).
The weakness of the armed forces lies in its lack of an air force, its religiously mixed army rank-and-file whose divided loyalties might splinter the force in a civil war, and its weak generalship: A corps of “yes men” as I described in a recent piece at National Review Online, many of whom are still taking orders from their Syrian overlords (despite the fact that Syria was kicked out by the United Nations more than two years ago) and they are justifying the existence of Hezbollah by referring to it as a legitimate “resistance” force.
The generals are excusing Hezbollah’s terrorist training, weapons acquisitions, and operational activities. The political leaders are deathly afraid of Hezbollah, which has set up an elections-defying “tent city” between the parliament and the government building. Politicians are being assassinated. Attempts have been made on the lives of Muslim clerics who oppose Hezbollah. Government and business leaders are on Hezbollah “death lists.” Anybody with a voice is under heavy security.
I’m only scratching the surface: I’ve not addressed the Palestinian refugee camp problem, smuggling, and border issues with Syria and Israel (The Lebanese army actually opened fire on Israeli jets that penetrated Lebanese airspace yesterday). Nor have I talked about the buck-passing between the generals and the politicians.
If there is any hope for Lebanon in this current national/international crisis, it may be found in a strong sense of nationalism within the Lebanese people – Christians, Muslims (those not loyal to Hezbollah), and Druze – all brave to a fault, and believing that Lebanon will ultimately achieve complete sovereignty and an incorruptible representative government of statesmen, not politicians.
I spoke with many of them – men and women, young and old, from all walks of life -- while traveling across Lebanon over the past several weeks. They stoically accept the fact that war will probably come and that their lives may get worse before things get better. They are ready to fight as they’ve done so many times in their recent history. But they wonder why it has taken so long for the American people to appreciate the global significance of Lebanon. “Only now [after 9/11] are you interested,” they say.