BEIRUT: Despite the millions of dollars being thrown at the Lebanese Army, the international community’s refusal to publicly engage with Hezbollah’s role in securing the country’s border leaves numerous unanswered questions. Following Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s statement Thursday that the party was withdrawing from Lebanon’s “safe” eastern borders and claims by U.K. Ambassador to Lebanon Hugo Shorter that “over 70 percent” of the frontier was now secure, experts weighed in on the current state of the region.
“When Shorter said 70 percent of the border has been secured, we need to first think of what it looked like before [the start of the Syria crisis in] 2011,” Aram Nerguizian, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Daily Star.
Nerguizian said until recently, the Army had not maintained a specific border deployment plan. Hezbollah, on the other hand, had been the principal actor along the frontier.
However, after the start of the Syrian civil war and spillover into Lebanon, international donors – including the U.K. – stepped in to help form and finance specialized Land Border Regiments. There are currently three regiments along Lebanon’s northeastern frontier, with a fourth being equipped and trained to secure areas between Arsal and Masnaa.
“So Shorter rightly highlighted just how much a very limited but very focused effort has done to create a new security reality,” Nerguizian added.
So far the United Kingdom and the United States have pumped over an estimated $100 million in support for the Army.
A spokesperson at the British Embassy said much of the funds have specifically gone toward equipping the LBRs. “By 2019, we will have trained over 11,000 soldiers for front-line operations, [built] over 30 watchtowers, 20 forward operations bases, delivered 320 Land Rovers and 3,300 sets of body armor along with a secure radio communication network,” the spokesperson said.
Nerguizian added that while the three LBRs cover 70-75 percent of the Syrian-Lebanese border, it remains a work in progress.
He also noted that internally, Lebanon is a vastly different place today than it was a decade ago.
“If this was 2005, Hezbollah might have shot at the LAF [for deploying on the border],” he said. “Now in 2017, we’re at a point in LAF training and equipment that both sides can do the shooting.”
The European Union, a third major contributor to the Army, has committed $15 million. Holland and Switzerland have also donated funding to set up the Integrated Border Management project. Unlike the U.K. and U.S. projects directed towards military aid, the EU has focused on strengthening and developing all five of Lebanon's agencies -- General Security, Customs, Internal Security Forces, the army, and the Lebanese Civil Defense--- in managing the frontier.
Following the brief 2014 takeover of Arsal by Daesh (ISIS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, known then as the Nusra Front, donors like the EU decided to increase grants aimed at equipping soldiers with necessary munitions and arms. Yet their main objectives have not overlapped significantly with U.K. and U.S. efforts. Willem Van de Riet, a Political Attache with the Dutch Embassy, explained that his government’s grants have focused on providing equipment for document fraud detection and training.
Despite vast improvements, the International Center for Migration Policy and Development in Lebanon – the European Union’s operational arm of the Integrated Border Management project – stressed that logistical challenges remain.
“Before you tell your guys to go and pursue someone [approaching the border] where you might possibly be killed, you have to give [units] water [and basic supplies]. We are still a long way from this being the case everywhere,” a staff member at ICMPD told The Daily Star anonymously, not having clearance to brief the media. “[Therefore] you can see that the equipment that is necessary for actually enforcing the border goes down the list of priorities.”
But international donors’ refusal to publicly address Hezbollah’s role in the border regions has left may “unresolved questions,” Steven Heydemann, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told The Daily Star.
“We don’t see much discussion about Hezbollah’s role in establishing border security, and we don’t hear a great deal about how Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces are interacting around these issues,” he said.
“There are some areas of the border where Hezbollah is quite comfortable in giving responsibility to [the] Lebanese Armed Forces, but in other areas, it’s quite clear that Hezbollah remains the principal military actor. At the end of the day, it’s hard to see how these programs do anything but strengthen Hezbollah.”
Heydemann said donors remaining mum over Hezbollah’s presence was “intentional myopia” aimed at maintaining consistency in the donors’ foreign policy, as the principal funders define Hezbollah’s armed wing as a terrorist organization.
“You’ll never get a public acknowledgment or recognition of the inherent contradictions in their programs, they just won’t do it,” Heydemann added. “But, it’s clear that an open border poses the threat of destabilizing Lebanon ... the balance of their interests pushes them to make these kinds of programming commitments even if they come with all these other caveats.”
Nerguizian considered such issues as simply the “cost of business,” and not mutually exclusive to the long-term goal of strengthening the Army.
“Hezbollah can look at this and say we’re benefiting from this, but that’s short-term. [But] I think [Hezbollah’s] leadership knows that this might be a problem because of the growing popularity [and strength] of the LAF,” he said.
And while there may be public misconceptions that the Army and Hezbollah were fighting for posts along the border, Nerguizian said this was not the case. Though the two actors are not far from one another, the expert said territory is not being contested.
“You think the LAF would be east of Hezbollah in terms of creating a defense position, but now what you’re looking at is Hezbollah basically operating in Syria, and not being as present on the Lebanese side of the frontier,” he told The Daily Star.
Although there is no competition between Hezbollah and the Army for ground, Nerguizian said the real contest lies in hearts and minds – one that for now still seems to favor the former. “Hezbollah is very good at their information operations and [at] taking credit from others like the LAF,” Nerguizian said. “The LAF’s approach is very much stuck in the 20th century. So that area falls through the cracks when we talk about just how much control the LAF has.” However, he added that small steps were already being taken to address this imbalance.
Nonetheless, a Lebanese military expert who spoke to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity, said separately that working with Hezbollah was simply an inevitable reality for the Army, despite the issues it may pose. “We need national accord between Lebanese factions to issue orders to the LAF,” the expert told The Daily Star. “It’s not a secret that [the] LAF coordinated with Hezbollah in fighting Al-Qaeda and ISIS operationally in north Bekaa by exchanging intelligence within the country. There is coordination between the LAF and foreign intelligence agencies such as the U.S., France and Germany ... and [a separate] coordination with Hezbollah,” he added.
But despite the millions in foreign funding, the expert stressed that local political will remains key because “money cannot replace politics.”