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Some Sunni fighters said they had even bought ammunition at prices below the going black market rate from a sympathetic soldier stationed on the street. In Lebanon, sectarianism is hard to escape for many. Nerguizian said.


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Ordering soldiers to conduct an operation in an area where their sect is present can pose problems. View all New York Times newsletters.

The only major military operation in recent times that the Lebanese military has successfully started came in when it confronted Fatah al-Islam, an extremist Islamist organization. The battle with the group, which was largely made up of foreigners, received the public and political support that is often lacking when the military most needs it.

In May , when fighting between March 8 bloc, led by Hezbollah, and the anti-Syria March 14 bloc threatened to return Lebanon to civil war, the military watched from the sidelines. The chronic and inherent weakness of the Lebanese government has meant that loyalty to the state above all else is rare.

In terms of the stability of the military, this is not a promising sign. There has been spillover from the conflict in Syria in the form of a surge in violence in Tripoli, increasingly heated political rhetoric between Lebanese supporters and detractors of the Syrian regime, the arrest of a former information minister accused of plotting to destabilize Lebanon under orders from Damascus, and the threat of a return to tit-for-tat sectarian kidnappings, but the violence that some have expected has not yet arrived in Lebanon. If such a conflict does materialize, the implications for the military could be severe.

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While some in the military may want to separate the institution from the sectarian politics of the country, this task is difficult, especially when tensions run high. Despite this, and while General Hotait denies any political affiliations himself, a picture of him shaking hands with Mr.


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The Lebanese army in force at the Syrian border

The Party of God is fully aware of this fragile equilibrium and plays with it at its full extent. Its Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, ambiguously portrayed the simultaneous campaigns of Hezbollah and the LAF at the Syrian border as common efforts to defeat terrorists targeting Lebanon. Negative perceptions of the LAF integrity and of its alleged proximity with Hezbollah can have dramatic effects on its international sponsors. For a long time, the repeated allegations on the infiltration of the LAF by Hezbollah fighters have engendered frustration among officers who strove to enforce a military ethos based on professionalism and loyalty.

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The first issue relates to its social fabric : the LAF is not an actor but a product of the sectarian balance of power inside Lebanon. This means that the delicate equilibrium among Christians, Sunnis, and Shias among the other smaller communities that is typical of Lebanese politics can be observed at all levels inside the military bureaucracy, from the flag officers to the non-commissioned officers. As of today, there is no indication that the armed forces as a national institution is challenged from within by these sectarian affiliations.

Therefore, because the LAF is a reflection of the sectarian balance of power, sustaining its social stability will eventually depend on the ability of the government in Beirut to avoid escalation, rather than on the strict preservation of a military ethos. The second issue involves the geopolitical parameters shaping the development of the new LAF. Building the Lebanese army and turning it into a robust security provider was from its outset constrained by exogenous factors.

The initial purpose of international aid to the LAF was clearly to transform it into, not only the legitimate, but the sole military force in the country. But if it constitutes a positive short-term outcome, it does not solve the long term predicaments of the LAF. Finally, the Syrian war added a third issue.

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Its combatants have acquired experience in the conduct of complex campaigns that involve urban warfare, joint ground-air operations with Syrian, Iranian and Russian militaries. Meanwhile, the arsenal of ballistic missiles and rockets deployed by Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon has increased dramatically, with an inventory now at least ten times bigger than at the dawn of the war with Israel[7].

The current balance of forces indicates that it is possible to see both organizations getting stronger without tilting the scales in favor of the LAF. This would be nothing new: Hezbollah has applied the same approach with UNIFIL forces for the last decade, allowing them to patrol the south of the country as long as they did not disrupt its operational plans. This leaves us with the most crucial question, for both the LAF and its international supporters : on the long term, is it possible to become a full military force without provoking an undesirable escalation with Hezbollah?

The latter exploits this dilemma — and is likely to continue to do so — when necessary in occasional games of brinkmanship. This is why for all its significant achievements at the operational level, the LAF will remain strategically weak if it, or its international supporters do not find a way to change this equation.

The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author.