BEIRUT – Lebanon is unable to pay its soldiers enough, the army warned Wednesday ahead of a UN-backed conference during which donors will seek to shore up one of the bankrupt country’s key institutions.
Unlike previous conferences designed to provide training, weapons or equipment for Lebanon’s armed forces, the virtual meeting hosted by France on Thursday aims to offer the kind of humanitarian assistance usually reserved for countries grappling with conflict or natural disaster.
“We are in need of food parcels, healthcare assistance and support with soldiers’ pay,” a military source said on condition of anonymity.
“The devaluation of the Lebanese pound is affecting soldiers and they are in need of support. Their salaries are not enough any more.”
Lebanon’s economic crisis, which the World Bank has labelled as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, has eaten away at soldiers’ pay and slashed the military’s budget for maintenance and equipment, further threatening the country’s stability.
Already mid last year, the army said it had scrapped meat from the meals offered to on-duty soldiers, due to rising food prices.
“We are doing the impossible to ease the suffering and the economic woes of our soldiers,” army chief Joseph Aoun said in a speech on Tuesday.
“We are forced to turn to allied states to secure aid and I am ready to go to the end of the world to procure assistance so that the army can stay on its feet.”
— ‘Specific needs’ —
Around 20 countries, including the United States, EU member states, Gulf countries, Russia and China have been invited to take part in the conference alongside UN representatives.
It follows a visit by Aoun last month to Paris, where he warned that the army could face even darker days without emergency support.
“The Lebanese army is going through a major crisis, which could get worse due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in Lebanon, which may worsen when subsidies are lifted,” he said.
He was referring to a government plan to scrap subsidies on essential goods such as fuel, food and flour to shore up dwindling foreign currency reserves.
A source close to French Defence Minister Florence Parly said Wednesday that the crisis was alarming as the Lebanese military is the “key institution” maintaining security in the country.
The army has highlighted “very specific needs” for milk, flour, medicine, fuel and spare parts for maintenance, the source said, in requests amounting to “several tens of thousands of euros.”
The aid was needed “as soon as possible”, the source said, stressing “the urgency of the situation.”
— Key role —
The military in part counterbalances Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia faction that boasts a powerful armed force as well as political dominance. Aram Nerguizian of the Carnegie Middle East Centre warned that degradation of the military would allow Hezbollah to loom even larger, an outcome few outside Lebanon, particularly in Washington, want to see materialise.
It could also open the door for countries like Russia, China, Iran or Syria to co-opt the force and find ways to influence it.
The military is also one of the few state institutions that enjoy respect among the Lebanese public, in contrast to their politicians, so mired in infighting they haven’t been able to form a government since October.
During anti-government demonstrations that swept the country in late 2019, videos of soldiers overcome by emotion as they confronted protesters were widely shared on social media.
Whether or not the aid would be in cash or in kind was to be discussed on Thursday.
France is expected to announce deliveries of medical equipment to combat the coronavirus and spare parts for armoured vehicles and helicopters.
The United States pledged to make a contribution during a meeting Tuesday in Brussels between Parly and her American counterpart Lloyd Austin.
The Lebanese army has been relying heavily on food donations from allied states since last summer’s monster port explosion in Beirut that killed more than 200 people and damaged swathes of the capital.
France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are among the army’s main food donors.
Iraq and Spain have offered medical assistance.
The United States remains the biggest financial backer of the Lebanese military.
It has bumped up funding for the army by $15 million for this year to $120 million.
Nerguizian said “the Paris conference is meant to prompt partner nations to think creatively about how to help the LAF (army) through 2021.”
In a report published on Wednesday, he said the assistance would “allow the command of the armed forces to focus on its missions,border security, counterterrorism, internal stability, as opposed to fighting a singular battle to maintain the LAF’s stability, with no real Lebanese government assistance.”
— Low morale —
Before Lebanon’s crisis, an enlisted soldier earned the equivalent of about $800 a month, but that has now dropped to less than $100 . Officers’ salaries are higher but have also dropped in value, now to about $400 a month.
The army has tightened spending. A year ago, it announced it would stop offering meat in meals given to soldiers on duty. It still offers free medical treatment, but those in the force say the quality and effectiveness has sharply deteriorated.
“Morale is below the ground,” said a 24-year-old soldier who quit the force in March after five years of service.
He said that by the time he left, the 1.2 million Lebanese pounds salary he received was barely enough for food, cigarettes and transportation. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
Mohammad Olayan, who retired two years ago after more than 27 years in the military, said that his end-of-service pay has been wiped out by the crash. Instead of a decent retirement, he now must take odd jobs to sustain his 12-year-old twin girls.
“What incentive is there for young soldiers?” he asked. “I sacrificed so much for my country and look how I ended up because of this mafia,” he said, referring to politicians.
Nerguizian said that while overall cases of desertion remain relatively low, the force has seen increased instances of dereliction of duty, high AWOL rates and more moonlighting by personnel to augment salaries.
The last three years have also seen some of the largest attrition rates, with personnel choosing to leave the military, he said. “More worryingly, the force is losing quality officers and noncommissioned officers, the gray matter and capabilities the force has spent more than a decade and a half developing,” Nerguizian added.
After Lebanon’s 15-year civil war broke out in 1975, the army split along sectarian lines. It reunited in the early 1990s under the command of General Emile Lahoud, who later became the president.
Since then, it has become one of the most professional militaries in the Middle East. The US has given it more than $2 billion since 2007, hoping to build a bulwark against Hezbollah’s power, though the aid is far below the around $3 billion a year it gives to Israel’s military.