The assignment of missions to the armed forces is governed by relevant legal frameworks, but these are often blurred by the confessional nature of the political system. The armed forces seek to maintain an apolitical stance in domestic political competition, but are often forced to undertake public order missions, which reduces their effectiveness in core national defense missions.
The Lebanese Constitution identifies the president as the head of the armed forces, but the armed forces commander maintains operational control. The Military Council, composed of senior officers from each sect, rather than parliament, exercises de facto oversight. The armed forces act as an apolitical intermediary between confessional groups. This role is not formalized, but the military has refused orders from civilian leadership that it felt would jeopardize intercommunal coexistence. The armed forces largely determine defense policy, development, and budgets independently of the Higher Defense Council, which is chaired by the president and meets at moments of crisis, but is crippled by competing political and sectarian factions.
Civilian leaders generally have little impact on defense outcomes because elements of the military hierarchy are penetrated by sectarian political elites. This penetration exploits weak state institutions to undermine professionalization, interfere in promotions, and degrade morale. The minister of defense is often chosen based on political allegiance and confessional status, not defense knowledge, so the armed forces typically show deference but also succeed in minimizing civilian influence in operational affairs.
Military staff draw up recommendations for noncombat affairs such as planning, procurement, budgeting, and recruitment, which are then vetted by the Council of Ministers, the president, and the speaker of parliament, making the minister of defense more a figurehead than a controller of defense policy. The armed forces are subject to many of the same confessional and post–civil war laws and norms that govern other state institutions. However, many practices tied to enlistment, procurement, and acquisition are not subject to the Accountability Court. Public discussion of defense affairs in Lebanon is generally free and active. The defense law reprimands those who reveal classified information and informal norms mean that operational details are rarely discussed, but many civilians interact with the military and vibrant forums exist for discussing defense affairs.
The Lebanese state does not sponsor armed forces that exist outside the normal chain of civilian and military command, but the Hezbollah political party operates a military force with independent political and strategic goals, funded by Iran and a global network of illicit activity. The 1989 Taef Agreement—which ended the civil war and governed militia disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration—exempted Hezbollah from demobilizing and sanctioned resistance against Israeli occupation, without describing the powers, oversight, and means of this resistance.
The armed forces are not committed to maintaining any one incumbent government or governing alliance, and regard themselves as above the divisive sectarian politics of post–civil war Lebanon, espousing political neutrality when possible. The military often reluctantly obeys the orders of sectarian leaders, albeit not when this threatens the stability of Lebanon or the integrity of the armed forces. Officer staffing is regulated along confessional lines, and senior officer appointments factor in professional competence, bureaucratic politics, and—in the case of the most senior of appointments—political elite preferences.
The armed forces are a microcosm of Lebanese society, so they must manage competing political and confessional preferences to maintain political neutrality. The military has become considerably less politicized since the Syrian troop withdrawal in 2005, but moments of political crisis draw attention and resources to confessional divisions. The defense minister is more likely to represent the will of a political or sectarian faction than of either the government or the military, and he does not exert operational control over the armed forces. Given the armed forces’ nonpartisan reputation, retired military officers have often been seen as compromise candidates for the presidency or parliamentary seats, but the vast majority play no political role after retirement, and none do while on active duty.
The armed forces do not override civilian authorities on nondefense issues, but are consulted on issues indirectly related to defense, such as infrastructure planning and environmental protection. They have also been known, on rare occasions, to reinterpret or choose not to follow orders when these threaten internal stability. The defense law forbids military personnel from joining political associations, conducting electoral activities, participating in elections, or holding elected office while in service. They can stand in parliamentary or municipal elections immediately after retirement, but usually must wait two years before standing for the presidency. Lebanon receives considerable military aid from Western governments, but this has operational, not political, implications: armed forces doctrine and training aligns with that of these donors, as do intelligence sharing agreements.
The armed forces are mandated by ministerial decree to support the Internal Security Forces in public order maintenance. The armed forces are loath to do so, but their superior discipline, cohesion, and public trust have led to their involvement in such missions on numerous occasions. The armed forces routinely undertake minor public order and related missions such as counterterrorism and border security, and at times of severe crisis civilian security agencies can be put under the armed forces operational command.
Institutional distrust and the softness of formal coordination mechanisms between the armed forces and civilian security agencies weakens coordination in the maintenance of public order. Laws specify the exact jurisdiction of military and civilian security agencies in maintaining public order, but political or sectarian affiliations often blur these lines, particularly when civilian security agencies prove unable or unwilling to perform their assigned duties, leaving the military to step in. The armed forces’ codes of conduct and rules of engagement are clear in public order maintenance, and accountability mechanisms are often enforced, even if violations by senior officers in the field are dealt with in ways that balance intercommunal comity and the preservation of accountability.
The armed forces’ public order role undermines soldiers’ ability to transition effectively to national defense missions. This effect has so far not been critically debilitating, and the armed forces have conducted increasingly competent maneuver warfare operations. It is nonetheless unclear that the armed forces could defend the country against a far more capable Israeli foe, even if they ceased all public order missions. Unlike other countries, civilian leadership may want the military to be more repressive and more willing to act with impunity than the force itself. Political or sectarian leaders often seek to relegate the armed forces to a public order role, making the powers for assigning and regulating such missions less clear and enforceable.
Q1 - Well-Defined Roles
Q2 - Political Involvement
Q3 - Public Order Role