In a video posted online, a Lebanese soldier drives past a mile-long line of cars waiting for fuel and complains that he can’t even get enough gas to drive to his military base.
“I just hope that this message reaches the commander of the army,” said the soldier, who is careful to hide his identity, pointing the camera straight forward with his military fatigues barely visible.
He said he went to a gas station but the owner wouldn’t even give him 20,000 Lebanese pounds worth of fuel — a little more than $1. He called it “a humiliation.”
The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value, and imports such as medicine, food and fuel are increasingly difficult to procure. These gas lines are a near-constant sight on Lebanon’s roads and highways.
Earlier this month, General Joseph Aoun issued a dire warning about the impact of Lebanon’s economic spiral on the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
“The situation is critical. ... If unmitigated, the economic and financial crisis will inevitably lead to the collapse of all state institutions including the LAF — the backbone of the country.”
“The situation is critical,” he said. “If unmitigated, the economic and financial crisis will inevitably lead to the collapse of all state institutions including the LAF — the backbone of the country.”
The World Bank said this month that Lebanon is suffering one of the 10 worst financial crises in modern history — since the mid-19th century.
Half the population is now believed to be below the poverty line, facing fuel shortages and soaring food prices.
The Lebanese army has tried to cut costs. Last year, as the situation worsened, the army announced a vegetarian diet for on-duty soldiers. The army could no longer afford the tripled price of meat.
At a donor conference this month hosted by France, the Lebanese army asked the international community for everything from food and medical supplies to fuel and spare parts for military equipment.
“If, God forbid, the LAF collapses,” warned General Aoun, “the state entity will collapse and the country will be in total turmoil.”
This would not be the first time the Lebanese army has collapsed.
During the country’s civil war, the force splintered along sectarian lines, leaving Lebanon without a unified national armed force. When the war ended in 1990, an effort to rebuild the army began.
The international community, particularly the US, has invested heavily in strengthening and equipping the Lebanese army. It’s now an 80,000-strong force with American weapons and foreign training.
As the institution feels the weight of the crisis, soldiers, too, are descending into poverty as their salaries, typically worth about $800 per month, lose their value against hyperinflation.
“How can a soldier support a family with a salary that does not exceed $90?” asked General Aoun.
It’s difficult to know how many soldiers have left their posts. All soldiers asked to speak for this story said they weren’t allowed under army orders. Even soldiers guarding Beirut’s streets said they couldn’t talk. One simply rolled his eyes back gently and lifted his eyebrows — Lebanese for “Nope, not a chance.”
Bilal Saab of the Middle East Institute said he doesn’t think the army is at risk of imminent collapse, but rather that the real risk is of “more desertions or soldiers trying to get multiple jobs to make ends meet," affecting their performance and competence.
Promotional army videos sometimes show soldiers jumping through fire hoops and scaling two-story high walls, but in reality, Lebanon’s army participates in very little actual combat. It’s not even the best armed force in the country. Hezbollah, a political and military group allied with Iran, is militarily stronger.
But Saab said the LAF does some border security and combats what he calls “narcoterrorism.”
“It’s also the only thing left standing to provide some modicum of security to the country,” Saab said. He adds that the US also sees funding and training the Lebanese army as a way to counter the influence of Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon.
The army also plays an important role in bridging Lebanon’s deep sectarian divides, with soldiers and officers representing all of Lebanon’s sects.
“[The LAF is the] only national institution beyond the parliament, which is not meeting right now anyway, that is truly representative of all Lebanese religious communities."
“It’s the only national institution beyond the parliament, which is not meeting right now anyway, that is truly representative of all Lebanese religious communities,” Saab said. The army’s leadership has managed to stay relatively outside Lebanon’s toxic party politics, he said, which makes it easier for countries like the US to support them.
“The entire political class is corrupt and completely unworkable,” he said.
Western states, including the US and France, have pledged to step up, recognizing the importance of the amry institution to the country's stability, but so far there have been few concrete commitments.
Police, as well as all of Lebanon’s security forces, are also suffering. The groups have been pitted against protesters in the past year-and-a-half of anti-government demonstrations. Riots in Tripoli over the weekend left at least 20 people injured, half of them soldiers.
Last year, as security forces clashed with demonstrators on a highway outside Beirut, one protester shouted at an officer: “We’re going hungry!”
The officer shouted back: “I’m hungrier than you are.”
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